Top movie picks of 2016

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Charles Liu:

“Moonlight”

“Who is you?”

That’s the question Chiron, an African-American boy growing up in Miami, must answer as he comes to terms with his masculinity and sexuality. Raised by a crack-dependent mother (Naomie Harris) and a school system that ostracizes him, Chiron’s heart hardens. But when his best friend and romantic interest, Kevin (André Holland), reconnects with him as an adult, Chiron’s walls may soon come down.

Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and UT graduate Trevante Rhodes wonderfully play Chiron as he journeys from boyhood to manhood. Each communicates his quiet anguish and his longing for love with grace and authenticity. Director Barry Jenkins crafts “Moonlight” with artistry and deeply powerful intimacy. The film doesn’t judge — it’s empathetic toward drug dealers,  failed parents and trampled souls. It’s easy to connect with most of the central characters and see our own identity struggles reflected through them.

In the end, “Moonlight” is a moving meditation on the pain of losing our way — and the catharsis that comes with finding it again.

 

“Hell or High Water”

“Hell or High Water” is both a modern Western and a modern masterpiece.

At the center of its gritty tale are two bank-robbing brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster). Their motivation: pay off the mortgage on their mother’s land to keep the recently discovered oil beneath it and secure a better future for Toby’s sons. On their tail are two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) who are determined to bring the brothers to justice. 

The stars of “Hell or High Water” all deliver, but it’s Pine who stands out the most with the most mature and engaging performance of his career. The film crescendos to a taut climax that pits heroes against anti-heroes. It’s the culmination of a journey that delves into the depths and lengths desperation and conviction can drive us. 

It’s hard to say whether anybody wins in “Hell or High Water.” Perhaps nobody in the business of violence ever does.

 

“The Nice Guys”

Arguably one of 2016’s most underappreciated films, Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys” is a lovable, hilarious neo-noir throwback to the 1970s.

It’s a strange mystery concerning a missing girl and a coveted reel of pornography sought by dangerous men. Enter no-nonsense enforcer Jack Healey (Russell Crowe), the dim-witted private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Holland’s precocious daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). They’re the most unlikely of heroes, but so is their case. Crowe, Gosling and Rice’s chemistry elevates Black’s sharp script, which is rife with awkward violence and clever subversions.

“The Nice Guys” is a love letter to the buddy comedy genre and reignites it with a spicy yet welcome flavor. The movie isn’t so “nice” when all is said and done, but it’s brimming with heart and joy.

 

Justin Jones

“Captain America: Civil War”

Captain America’s third movie functions more like an Avengers 2.5 than his own film. But, at its heart, it is an emotionally impactful story about the bonds between friends.

After the massive destruction in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the United Nations seeks to make the Avengers a registered task force to be used only with UN approval. The titular Civil War arises from a clash in visions for the future of the superhero task force. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) supports this program, and Captain America (Chris Evans) seeks to defend the Avengers’ liberties. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo use the narrative of the Avengers as an outlet for critique of modern American politics, with two sides fighting and demonizing one another rather than compromising and working out their differences.

Captain America, Iron Man and Cap’s formerly villainous childhood friend, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) make up the core of the film, but many other heroes, including Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and even Spider-Man (Tom Holland) make appearances.

“Civil War” contains a multitude of brilliantly shot and choreographed action and Marvel’s trademark brand of wit, but its true strength is the finale’s surprising poignancy. The film ends without a satisfactory conclusion, giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe its own “Empire Strikes Back.”

 

“Moana”

Disney had large shoes to fill after 2013’s “Frozen,” but “Moana” proved to be a worthy successor. With songs written by “Hamilton”’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and a wide cast of native voice actors, the studio effectively paid its respects to the traditions of the South Pacific while telling a new, beautiful story.

Young Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of the village chief and is destined to be a leader herself, but she dreams of sailing. When darkness makes its way to the island of Motunui, she takes to the seas and sets out on a journey to save her people. She enlists the help of demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) on her voyage and inevitably ends up learning more about herself along the way.

In regards to its soundtrack, Lin-Manuel Miranda truly outdid himself, creating the highlight of the movie. The film features the classic Disney “I Want” song and a playful sidekick song but still pays homage to the Southern-Pacific culture. Moana’s ancestors sing an epic ballad and Flight of the Conchords band member Jemaine Clement delivers a hilarious, David Bowie-inspired riff on the typical Disney villain song. The film’s recurring musical motifs act like exclamation points that accentuate the film’s story line, leaving audiences in tears.

 

“Beyoncé: Lemonade”

“Lemonade” is one of the best films of 2016. It is 46 minutes of masterful, emotionally raw songwriting, spoken word and filmmaking about betrayal and forgiveness, co-directed by Beyoncé herself.

The film itself is a visual poem, offering meditations on grief, anger and forgiveness. It follows the story of a woman (Beyoncé) as she discovers her husband’s infidelity and her subsequent journey, but also offers her commentary on the experience of black women in America. Lyrically, it is uncharacteristically explicit for Beyoncé, allowing it to draw in the viewer and make the character more real.

The cinematography is beautiful and effortlessly switches between David Fincher-like green to stark black-and-white to eye-popping bright colors. Cameos from fellow celebrities are abound, featuring Zendaya, The Weeknd and even tennis star Serena Williams twerking.

“Lemonade” is 2016’s best surprise: a gorgeous film by the moment’s biggest celebrity.

 

Penn Harrison:

“Sing Street” 

John Carney’s indie music dramedy soars as a coming-of-age story which both uses and defies genre conventions.   As the protagonist, Connor, and his friends approach adulthood, their world — 1980s Dublin — is crumbling around them. Connor’s family is put out of work by the Irish recession, his parents are divorcing and his Catholic school’s priests are as abusive as its bullies. Surrounded by struggles, Connor faces a choice: either regress into stagnant cynicism, or capitalize on his talents by channeling his angst into music. Connor also hopes to win the heart of the beautiful Raphina, a gorgeous model whom he barely as the guts to talk to, with his talents. As the film progresses, Connor and Raphina bond over dreams of a better life. Emotional exchanges such as this, and one between Connor and his college dropout brother, contain some of the year’s most affecting dialogue. 

The intimate drama escalates to a finale both musically, visually, and emotionally enthralling.  Connor’s journey is a rousing roller coaster of pain, laughs, and a story  of brotherhood matched this year only by “Hell or High Water.” Sing Street’s inspiring message, hilarious dialogue, loveable characters, reimagination of 80’s rock music, and emotional complexity make it the best portrait of adolescence to grace the silver screen in a long time. 

 

“Arrival” 

The best science-fiction film since Interstellar spins exquisite complexities from a simple premise: alien orbs land on earth and multiple nations race to decipher the aliens’ language. The film poses a simple question with grave implications.

Amy Adams’s emotionally transparent, intellectually astute and carefully subdued lead performance as Louise carries the film. Denis Villenueve’s dark, thoughtful direction balances fantasy, realism and mystery. Accentuating ordinary details in extraordinary situations, Villeneuve generates Spielbergian wonder but emphasizes unease over spectacle.

These mysterious details escalate to a mind-blowing final twist with equal parts of intellectual and emotional payoffs. The story’s thematically separate strands — scientists translating alien languages, nations threatening war amid alien invasion and a mother mourning her lost child — intersect in a riveting climax which relies more on thought provoking ideas than action. Arrival is a satisfying depiction of humanities  highs and lows and a celebration of its the imperfections and miraculous nature.  

 

“La La Land” 

Like their film’s protagonists, writer-director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz had La La Land, their passion project, rejected by numerous producers, but through persistence they finally  got to see it on the big screen. The result? An unflinchingly realistic love story infused with imagination, music and fantasy. 

Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) star as two aspiring artists in Los Angeles who fall in love while chasing their dreams.  Mia is a talented actress; Sebastian plays piano and hopes to open a jazz club someday.  Their career advancements strain their relationship, but La La Land’s style overcomes any risk of conventionality.  The film’s song and dance extravaganzas smoothly allude to musicals of past eras: the opening dance atop stopped cars on the 110 expressway nods to a similar street scene in West Side Story; Gosling and Stone’s reluctant sunset tap dance seems straight out of “Singin’ in the Rain.” These and other music scenes enthrall with visual and sonic creativity down to the slightest detail. But “La La Land”’s epilogue overthrows expectations of a “Hollywood” ending, instead depicting a bittersweet “what if” guaranteed to pull every viewer’s heartstrings.  “La La Land” revitalizes the musical genre but also astutely defies its conventions. Through it’s portrayal of a romantic relationship strained by grand ambition,   it challenges viewers to chase their dreams, even if at the expense of love.