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Film Feature: The 10 Best Films of 2016, By Patrick McDonald

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CHICAGO – It’s that time of the film year, the “Ten Best” lists. In representing my 2016 picks – as “Patrick McDonald” – I looked for the emotional experience as much as anything. I think every filmgoer, from the most casual to the ardent buff, adhere to their favorites through that feeling of connection.

There are honorable mentions all over the place, often just missing the 10th spot – I like to characterize them as all tied for eleventh. My favorite superhero film was “Captain America: Civil War,” for the Marvel Comics angst that works best in this genre of movies. The dramas “Arrival,” “Elle,” “Little Men” and “A Monster Calls” were excellent and heartfelt experiences. I loved the wacky tribute that writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen gave to 1950s Hollywood in “Hail, Caesar!” And after watching it again after initial reservations, I realized and connected to the ardent celebration in the musical “La La Land.” Want more verse and chorus inspiration? Try the 1980s-loving rock gods of the brilliant “Sing Street.”

There were three standout documentaries in 2016. “First Monday in May” breaks down the highly anticipated costume exhibit at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and celebrated creativity at its highest and weirdest levels. “Tower” was a superb document of a horrid event that used a distinctive animation form, to tell the story of a mass shooting in the 1960s, and “O.J.: Made in America” is a must-see doc on the man and America. It was also an exceptional year for animation, with Walt Disney Studios “Finding Dory” and “Moana,” in addition to the bright fun of “Storks,” “Trolls” and “Sing.”

Below each film description will be a link to full reviews and/or interviews, when applicable, that are associated with the tributes. Within the mindset of whoever Patrick McDonald is, here are my 10 Best Films of 2016…

StarDon’t Think Twice

Twice
Don’t Think Twice
Photo credit: The Film Arcade

This is a comedy, but it generates its laughs through poignant realism. It is writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s second film, and it is part backstage show business story, part exposition of creative (and other types of) partnering. “Don’t Think Twice” blends these elements through a group of improvisation performers – a particular kind of comedy that relies both on stage partners and an individual’s ability to make a quick decision. Sometimes – like in life – those partners have your back, or can just as quickly and suddenly leave you behind. Birbiglia also performs as one of the improvisers, but Keegan-Michael Key (of “Key & Peele”) and Gillian Jacobs (“Community”) gave stand out performances. The authenticity of the relationships and situations reveals lessons that go beyond the story.

HIGHLIGHT: Gillian Jacob’s character, stuck down a well.

Click here for the full review of “Don’t Think Twice.”
Click here for an interview with writer/director Mike Birbiglia of “Don’t Think Twice.”

StarKubo and the Two Strings

Kubo
Kubo and the Two Strings
Photo credit: Focus Features

In an “A+” year for film animation, “Kubo” goes to the head of the class. Produced by Laika Entertainment (“Coraline,” “ParaNorman”), it combines simple moral lessons with ultra creative uses of a Japanese-style animation tableau – utilizing origami, Kabuki theater masks, samurai tradition and scroll-style art stylings to establish a stunning foundation. Also it’s a completely new story, by screenwriters Marc Haimes and Shannon Tindle, that feels like a thousand year old legend. “Kubo” creates its magic by sticking to what is best for the main character and capturing what he needs to do – with a conjured illusion that packs both an emotional wallop and a luxurious state of awe. It reminds us that the happiest of times occur when the simplest of dreams come true.

HIGHLIGHT: How colored paper becomes origami formed stories, and remains a theme throughout the journey of the characters.

Click here for the full review of “Kubo and the Two Strings.”
Click here for an interview with writer/director Travis Knight of “Kubo and the Two Strings.”

StarNeruda

Neruda
Neruda
Photo credit: The Orchard

Director Pablo Larrain (“Jackie”) has had the year of a lifetime, as “Neruda” is his second biography film of the year. And like “Jackie,” it takes a specific event of its subject’s life – in this case, Chilean poet laureate Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) – and creates a whole new feeling of image and intuition. It is the story of Neruda’s time as a fugitive starting in 1948, as Chile outlaws his Communist political party. The pursuit for his arrest is represented by police inspector Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), and the two play out a cat-and-mouse game, that may be just cat or just mouse, depending on how your point-of-view interacts with the story. The film is finely tuned, literary and artistically cinematic, and ends up being much more than “just a moment” in a man’s life.

HIGHLIGHT: Actor Gael García Bernal, who throughout his career has always performed beyond the characters he portrays.

Click here for the full review of “Neruda.”

StarChristine

Christine
Christine
Photo credit: The Orchard

This film was a bit under the radar in the onslaught of the fall movie season. It was based on the true story of a Florida “local news” TV reporter named Christine Chubbick (Rebecca Hall), who in 1974 killed herself while appearing live on the air. But this is more than just that event, as it explores mental health issues in a less enlightened age, the workplace for women in the 1970s – it presented a more crassly realistic Mary Richards/Lou Grant type relationship – and the strange environment for adults in the era of Watergate. Even though “Christine” is a period film, it feels contemporary, and features a career-defining performance by Rebecca Hall, intensely supported by Tracy Letts as a bizarro Lou Grant-like station manager and Michael C. Hall as the anchorman.

HIGHLIGHT: The recreations of the strange local news stories of the era, wherein Rebecca Hall uncomfortably tries to assert her character.

Click here for the full review of “Christine.”

StarIndignation

Indignation
Indignation
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment

It’s a Tracy Letts two-fer – Letts is a Chicago actor and playwright who had a breakout year in character roles, and portrays the “Dean of Students” in an unforgettable turn in this film. Set in 1951 America, “Indignation” is an adaptation of a Phillip Roth novel by writer/director James Schamus, and involves a middle class Jewish college student from New York City named Marcus (the underrated Logan Lerman), who is the fly in the ointment at a conservative Ohio school. He starts dating Olivia (Sarah Gadon), who has a bipolar condition that 1950s healthcare cannot treat. Her highly charged sexuality confuses Marcus, and leads to a confrontation with the Dean. This scene between the duo is like a one act play in the middle of the film, and bookends the beginning and the end like a flash flood in the middle of a drought. This highly authentic look at an alien social climate in America is passionately pro-women, in a very subtle and exquisite way.

HIGHLIGHT: A short but powerful scene between Marcus and his mother (Linda Emond) that is perfection between the two performers.

Click here for the full review of “Indignation.”

“Indignation” is available for download and was released on DVD in November of 2016.

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