This was a great year for animated films and documentaries. Even narrative films offered some great viewing. Herewith my favorites, in no particular order.
1. Kubo and the Two Strings: One of the best animated films I’ve ever seen, “Kubo” checks off all the boxes: it’s beautiful, even gorgeous; the characters are engaging and amusing and the dialogue not insultingly juvenile. What more can you ask?
2. Moana: This tale set in Polynesia pits a girl who hears the call of the sea against her father, who wants her to stay home and become chief of the tribe when he dies. “Moana” offers engaging characters and an authentic-sounding score (with one song by “Hamilton” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda), and some groundbreaking CG animation.
3. April and the Extraordinary World: A 19th-century science experiment gone wrong results in the disappearance of scientists and a world without the familiar great inventions of science. Can science be saved? This French animated tale, with its steam-punk feel and a hand-drawn look (it’s adapted from a graphic novel) is a charmer.
4. Zootopia: Can Judy the bunny make it as the first girl – and the first bunny – cop in Zootopia? Engaging and adorable, this film will renew your faith in Disney and in animated films in general.
5. Sausage Party: Not for all tastes, this extremely profane animated film is nonetheless pretty damned funny. It stars a hot dog named Frank (as in N. Furter) and his new love Brenda Bun.
1. Concerto: A Beethoven Journey: Indie director Phil Grabsky follows Norwegian concert pianist Leif Ove Andsnes on a four-year performance odyssey of all five Beethoven piano concertos, sharing his deepening understanding of and appreciation for them as he goes along. His engaging and lucid explanations – backed up with musical examples (including his magnificent playing) – combine to make this an unusual and extraordinary film.
2. Genius: The relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe and his editor, Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s, is one I (as a sometime editor) do not covet, but it’s fascinating to watch how Perkins managed to pare down the garrulous Wolfe’s works to a more readable length. Colin Firth and Jude Law (as Wolfe) make a strange but riveting pair to watch.
3. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words: A fascinating doc about this
self-described “freak” known almost as much for his anti-censorship campaign (he was routinely boycotted and censored here in the U.S.) as for the wild avant-garde nature of his music, both orchestral and rock.
4. The Music of Strangers: Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma traveled the world in search of terrific musicians who play unusual instruments, then formed the Silk Road Ensemble with those he found. This is the amazing story both of Ma’s life and of this fantastic group. This is one of the best films about music ever made.
5. Author: The JT LeRoy Story: Lots of authors write under more than one name, but Laura Albert went perhaps a piece too far when she invented and wrote as JT LeRoy, a 15-year-old boy who sometimes dressed as a boy and sometimes as a girl. It got awkward when the books sold and book tours were set up. This is the strange and fascinating true story.
6. Hooligan Sparrow: The dangers of being a social activist in China are shown in this clandestinely-shot film by Nanfu Wang, protesting the abduction and rape of six schoolgirls by their principal. The title character is a gutsy Chinese activist known for defending sex workers, who at one point holds up a sign: “Hey Principal! Get A Room with Me and Leave the Kids Alone!”
1. Neruda: Poetic and surreal, this unusual film offers a fanciful and riveting account of the flight into exile of the famous Chilean poet, communist and libertine after communism was outlawed and a warrant issued for his arrest. Structured like a police procedural (Neruda liked crime stories), but often poetic à la Neruda, Luis Gnecco is terrific as the poet, Gael García Bernal better than ever as the fictional police inspector.
2. Sully: Pilot Chesley Sullenberger landed a US Airways flight on the Hudson River, saving all 155 lives aboard including the crew. Then he had to explain why he did that. This is that utterly riveting untold story.
3. Hell or High Water: Crime and punishment (or not) in West Texas, as brothers Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine) rob a few banks in order to bankroll Toby’s kids’ lives and house payment. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play the lawmen in this atmospheric, often funny story.
4. Remember: Christopher Plummer plays an Auschwitz survivor (and Alzheimer’s victim) on a mission to find and kill the man who murdered his family in the death camp. This is Plummer’s best role to date.
5. La La Land: This delightful musical starring Emma Stone as a wannabe actress and Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist is both beautiful to look at and reminiscent of the best film musicals.
6. The Lobster: Colin Farrell in a dystopian world where people are either paired up or turned into an animal and released alone into the forest. Meanwhile, the renegade Loners (who refuse to pair up) live in the forest by their own strict rules. Co-writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos manages to retain humor in the craziness of these situations while growing progressively darker in tone….and inviting us to consider the social rules we live by.
7. Moonlight: Director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney both grew up black in the Miami slums, though at different times. Jenkins’ adaptation of McCraney’s play is the heartbreaking coming-of-age story of a fatherless young boy striving to answer the question “Who is you, man?”
8. Little Men: Gentrification threatens the friendship of two boys whose parents get into a dispute about the rent. But the boys, a budding artist (Theo Taplitz) and a wannabe actor (Michael Barbieri), overcome their parents’ beef in this wise and sometimes amusing coming-of-age story.
9. The Hunt for the Wilderpeople: A wild and woolly road movie about Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison, in a breakout performance), a kid who’s been moved from one foster home to another and gets one last chance with a grouchy old guy named Hec (Sam Neill) and his partner Bella (Rima Te Wiata). When the overzealous dedication of the social worker forces Ricky to go on the lam, Hec takes the boy with him into the New Zealand bush.
10. Sing Street: A charming story about misfits, music and survival in a rough Irish school where the motto is “act manly.” Bullies and administrative abuse greet 14-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) at this school, so he decides to start a band to impress Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a pretty girl he sees across the street.
In a class by itself:
Strangest Film of the Year: Notfilm, Ross Lipman’s documentary about what may be the weirdest film ever made: playwright Samuel Beckett’s only screenplay (“Film”), directed by first-time film director, famous theater director Alan Schneider.