The Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Broadcast Film Critics Association and many critics groups across the US have been busily proclaiming the best movies of 2016. Yet to come are selections by the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild and, of course, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Thus far, three movies are dominating the major award categories: Manchester by the Sea (my pick for the best film of 2016, see below); the splashy musical La La Land; and the understated, deeply personal Moonlight. While the first doesn’t offer much in the way of diversity when it comes to ethnicity or sexual orientation, the other two boast African-American performers as well as, in the case of Moonlight, a central character who is both black and gay.
Filmmakers and studio chiefs have been under tremendous public pressure this past year to make more movies that incorporate racial, gender and sexual diversity. Things exploded a year ago when, for the second year in a row, all 20 of the Academy Awards’ acting nominees were white. Perceived as more than an issue of oversight, many American films have been accused of purposefully failing to reflect reality in a nation where ethnic minorities now make up the combined majority.
Things improved in 2016 in terms of the depiction of black stories and lives on screen. While Moonlight may be the most significant of these, The Birth of a Nation, The Fits, Hidden Figures, Loving and Denzel Washington’s film version of the play Fences have all also been met with acclaim. Unfortunately, studios haven’t made as much recent progress when it comes to Latino, Asian or LGBTQ stories.
Historically, progress has been made in fits and starts in Hollywood, not unlike society as a whole. As society and movies tend to reflect one another’s needs and concerns, cinematic stories will continue to become more diverse and inclusive. The impending presidency of Donald Trump may well fuel and further this development rather than impede it.
At least three awards-bestowing groups are also doing their best to move progress along. The African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) has annually honored the best in black-themed movies since 2003. Their pick for best film of 2016? Moonlight, which could be considered a recognition of the movie’s gay elements as well.
Meanwhile, GLAAD presents its Media Awards each year to films, TV shows, online programs and other positive depictions of LGBTQ lives. The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA), founded in 2008, has done the same with its annual Dorian Awards while also honoring mainstream movies and TV programs. Both GLAAD and GALECA will announce their 2016 nominees and winners this month, with Moonlight all but assured of receiving multiple nominations.
It is a good sign that GALECA, which I currently serve as Vice President, has garnered increased attention from the major studios during the past few years. Universal, Focus, Paramount, Fox Searchlight, The Weinstein Company and Lionsgate/Summit are among those who now recognize GALECA as an official critics’ group. But a few major studios remain frustratingly resistant to our efforts to consider their releases for our Dorian Awards.
No, the road to progress and diversity in Hollywood and the media at large has never been a smooth one. Here’s hoping those driving the bus (or in some cases pushing it) will continue to accelerate in the new year, assuring greater representation by LGBTQ and all Americans.
Since I’m sure you are wondering, here are my personal picks of the best movies of 2016 as well as their remaining awards prospects:
1) Manchester by the Sea. A sometimes devastating, sometimes comical, always authentic exploration of grief by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. Look for lead actor Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) to be nominated for and potentially win Best Actor, as well as Lonergan’s screenplay.
2) Life, Animated. Disney had a stellar year with such blockbusters as Finding Dory, The Jungle Book, Moana and Zootopia. My personal favorite was their rather radical “re-imagining” of Pete’s Dragon. However, the very best Disney film of the year wasn’t actually produced by them. It is this independent documentary detailing how a young, autistic man learned to communicate again via the animation giant’s past masterpieces.
3) Moonlight and The Fits. Two unique, equally great explorations of black young people coming of age, one a gay man and the other a girl on the brink of adolescence whose dance team becomes afflicted with a mysterious ailment. Both become empowered characters in overdue, empowering films. Moonlight is bound to continue to sweep nominations and awards in various categories.
4) Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers’ latest left many viewers cold but I loved its satiric approach to Hollywood politics, religion and big-screen epics of the 1950’s. Its great cast includes Tilda Swinton as dueling, twin gossip columnists and Channing Tatum as a singing and dancing Communist spy. The Coens could possibly net an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay if their subject hasn’t hit too close to home for some modern-day studio heads.
5) Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, Political Animals and Women He’s Undressed. Three excellent documentaries on major LGBT figures: artist-photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; lesbian legislators Christine Kehoe, Sheila Kuehl, Jackie Goldberg and Carole Migden; and Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly. They are very different from one another stylistically but should not be missed by anyone with even a passing interest in LGBT history.
6) Love & Friendship. An exquisite and very funny adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, involving a matchmaker and her ensuing assortment of love triangles. Wittily directed by Whit Stillman (The Last Days of Disco), with Stillman regular Chloë Sevigny appearing as an American in England who fears being scalped if forced to return to then-primitive Connecticut. Out British actor Stephen Fry makes a typically amusing cameo.
7) Captain Fantastic. This truly original story features a father (an excellent Viggo Mortensen, who could draw Oscar attention) raising his children in the wilderness, far from the “contaminating” reaches of modern society. When his wife commits suicide, they must leave their pristine environment to retrieve her body. Social, legal and family conflicts galore result in Matt Ross’s perceptive, insightful film.
8) Arrival. A gripping cut above typical alien invasion fare, with a dash of time travel mixed in. Likely Oscar nominee Amy Adams shines as a linguist drafted to try to communicate with extraterrestrial visitors with possibly hostile intentions. Director Denis Villenueve keeps audiences guessing and on their toes until the very end.
9) La La Land. An often dazzling pastiche of/homage to movie musicals of the 1960’s. The plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen A Star is Born but talented writer-director Damien Chazelle brings it up to date with the help of photogenic leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. I predict this will win the Oscar for Best Picture, given its many successful ingredients and glamorization of old-school Hollywood. GALECA members are eating it up too.
10) 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Witch. I’m notoriously picky when it comes to horror/suspense films, but these serve up a creepy and genuinely unpredictable 1-2 punch. Together, they make evil aliens and witches frighteningly believable while revealing how the “normal” and well-meaning among us may pose the worst threats.
And the worst movies of 2016, in no particular order of non-distinction: The Dressmaker, Cell, The Girl on the Train (despite a superb performance by Emily Blunt), You’re Killing Me, The Lobster, The Blue Hour, You’ll Never Be Alone and Like Cattle Towards Glow.
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.