Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 7 – La La Land

La La Land is a romantic comedy musical written and directed by Damien Chazelle. The film is set in Los Angeles and follows aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who serves lattes to movie stars in between auditions, and dedicated jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who plays in dingy bars in order to scrape by. The two meet and fall in love, but, as success mounts, the dreams they worked so hard to maintain threaten to rip them apart.

Director Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone on the set of LA LA LAND.

This past fall, I wrote about how much I was looking forward to seeing La La Land, and my main motivation was the director, Damien Chazelle. In 2014, Chazelle burst onto the scene with his Best Picture-nominated Whiplash, which ranked as my No. 1 film from the entire year. On the strength of my love for Whiplash, I could not wait for La La Land—and thanks to Chazelle’s genius, it did not disappoint. La La Land is incredibly romantic and charming, and, just like in Whiplash, Chazelle’s love for jazz reigns supreme.

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With a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, Chazelle has cemented himself as one of the best filmmakers in the game. Although I did not find this film as enthralling and emotionally disarming as Whiplash, I still found La La Land to be a delightfully astounding piece of cinema. I mean, Chazelle shut down a major Los Angeles highway in the heat of summer in order to shoot one of the most memorable opening scenes of all time—it takes a certain degree of brilliance to make that happen and Chazelle nailed it!

la5One of the critiques I have heard regarding La La Land is that although it is a wonderful film, it does not pack the same timeless punch as Hollywood’s most momentous musicals, such as Singin’ in the Rain. Although I somewhat concur in that observation, it does not make La La Land any less amazing. As a modern musical, it is definitely one of the best I have seen—the characters are charismatic, the story is enchanting, and the music is memorable. In fact, after seeing this film in the theater, I listened to the soundtrack over and over and over again. la4The two standout tracks are the songs up for Best Original Song: “City of Stars” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).” These two numbers are definitely the best, but I also greatly enjoyed “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme,” which, as you could expect, is the soundtrack to the two main characters’ love; it is a beautiful piano instrumental that evokes the utmost emotional connection to Sebastian and Mia’s relationship. Needless to say, Justin Hurwitz’s composition makes this film that much more amazing.

la2The blend of Chazelle’s storytelling genius and Hurwitz’s melodic prowess would not be complete without performers to bring their vision to life—thankfully, the filmmakers had the ever-charming Ryan Gosling and the hilarious girl-next-door Emma Stone at their disposal. I loved these two actors together in Crazy, Stupid, Love (their chemistry was also undeniable in Gangster Squad, although that movie sucked), and in La La Land, they again just flat out fit together. Both Sebastian and Mia are dreamers in their own ways—Sebastian, a devoted but struggling jazz musician, dreams of owning his own club dedicated to this nostalgic genre, and Mia, a devoted but struggling actress, dreams of making it big in Hollywood. la3Life continues throwing the two curves, but they always hold tight to their desires, which ultimately places their devotion to each other in doubt. Both Gosling and Stone portray the intricacies of their characters with magnetism, and you cannot help but become emotionally invested in their relationship. Although the two flourish as both singers and dancers in all of the film’s traditional musical scenes (such as the catchy number “A Lovely Night,” set amongst the Los Angeles night sky), one of my favorite scenes was when Mia requested a performance of A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran” by an 80s cover band at a Hollywood pool party—that band just so happened to feature the true-to-his-art Sebastian playing synthesizer. The scene gave me more than enough laughs to last the entire movie, and it was truly representative of Gosling and Stone’s dynamic on-screen chemistry. La La Land is rated PG-13 for some language.

La La Land trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pdqf4P9MB8

Academy Award nominations for La La Land:

Best Picture (Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, and Marc Platt)

Best Director (Damien Chazelle)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ryan Gosling)

Best Actress in a Leading Role (Emma Stone)

Best Original Screenplay (Damien Chazelle)

Best Original Score (Justin Hurwitz)

Best Original Song for “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (Music by Justin Hurwitz, Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul)

Best Original Song for “City of Stars” (Music by Justin Hurwitz, Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul)

Best Sound Editing (Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan)

Best Sound Mixing (Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee, and Steve A. Morrow)

Best Production Design (David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco)

Best Cinematography (Linus Sandgren)

Best Costume Design (Mary Zophres)

Best Film Editing (Tom Cross)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. Fences
  2. Zootopia
  3. Nocturnal Animals

 

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 8 – Fences

Fences is a drama directed by Denzel Washington, with a screenplay by the late August Wilson, which he adapted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film, which is set in a black working-class neighborhood in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, follows Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a waste collector living with his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo) during a time of racial tension. Throughout the film, Troy and his best friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) set up shop in the Maxson’s backyard to drink gin and talk about life, including discussions about race, women, and whether or not Troy will ever finish building his fence.

august-wilsonThe late August Wilson’s Fences is considered one of the greatest plays of all time, but Wilson has transformed that award-winning story into one of the most emotionally affecting films of 2016, with a screenplay that he penned prior to his 2005 death. With the help of Denzel Washington’s brilliant filmmaking—and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s exquisite photography—Fences gets a picturesque silver-screen treatment. This superb script explores thought-provoking themes of race, death, love, revenge, and family, and Wilson’s rapid-fire dialogue makes for an exciting ride for the audience. Over the course of his career, August Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes and one Tony, so it is only right that his final contribution to the arts resulted in a much-deserved posthumous Academy Award nomination.

fences5As I mentioned earlier, this film is incredibly affecting on an emotional level, and it is not just because of August Wilson’s beautiful script—what truly carries Fences is the remarkable acting. However, it is no surprise that the chemistry between the performers was spot-on and effortless—five of the actors took part in the 2010 Broadway revival of Fences. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprised their roles as Troy and Rose Maxson, for which they both won Tony Awards in 2010. Further, Stephen Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, and Russell Hornsby all returned in their roles as Bono, Gabriel Maxson, and Lyons Maxson, respectively. Needless to say, these skilled actors had already spent years with their characters, which allowed for the most immaculate portrayals that an audience could have hoped to see.

fences6Speaking of the acting performances, the hype that Denzel and Viola Davis are receiving is completely justified—just as their on-screen characters are constantly battling, these two celebrated actors fight each other for ownership of every single scene they appear in. The Best Actor category is an incredibly tight race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington, and although I preferred Affleck’s performance, I would have zero problem with Washington taking home his third Oscar—his performance is as commanding as any I’ve ever seen. As for Davis, well, her epic snot-pouring scene in the film has surely locked up the Best Supporting Actress category. fences3One of my favorite performances, though, was that of Williamson as Troy’s disabled brother Gabriel, which was quite underrated. Fences featured a few moments that cued the water works, and many of those came courtesy of Williamson’s emotionally invested portrayal of Gabriel. Fences is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.

Fences trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj-ZYPVRQbc

Academy Award nominations for Fences:

Best Picture (Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington, and Todd Black)

Best Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Viola Davis)

Best Adapted Screenplay (August Wilson)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

9. Zootopia

10. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 9 – Zootopia

 

Zootopia is an animated feature film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, and written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston. The film is about Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from Bunnyborrow with aspirations to become a police officer.

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Following her dream, Judy moves to the big city—Zootopia. However, when she arrives, she quickly realizes that life as the first bunny cop in history is incredibly challenging. Eventually, Judy finds her purpose investigating a big case, with help from a sly, scam-artist fox named Nick (voiced by Jason Bateman)—but things are not as they seem after a series of predators go “savage.”

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I saw Zootopia twice this year (once when it came out in March and again this summer), and until the slate of incredible fall movies hit the theater, it was my favorite movie of the year. Zootopia is by far one of the best animated movies I have ever seen, too—it rivals any of the Disney/Pixar greats. But for me, what makes the film so incredible is more than just its elite animation and witty humor. Zootopia succeeds because it explores deep, socially relevant themes in a way that appeals to both kids and adults. Those that believe animated films provide no true cinematic value are simply ignorant and mistaken. On a basic level, Judy Hopps’s persistence illustrates to children that if they dream it and believe it, they can achieve it. But on a much deeper level, Zootopia brilliantly examines themes of fear, stereotyping, and prejudice that make it a particularly important piece of social cinema.

zoo6In the melting pot of Zootopia, predators and prey live amongst each other in harmony. However, when a group of predators start to go “savage,” every animal’s true colors come out in the form of unfounded fear and prejudice. The crimes of these few “savage” predators become a conduit for terror, intolerance, and discrimination. This is what makes Zootopia such a thought-provoking piece of film, aside from being just another great animated movie for kids. The creators dared to depict relevant real-world issues in a “kids” movie, and Zootopia will forever be held in esteem for its message of inclusion.

zoo3Aside from its adult themes, Zootopia is a flawless comedy for people of all ages. Jason Bateman is hilariously bright and amusing (per usual) in his role as Nick, and Ginnifer Goodwin skillfully balances the intricate line between straight-edge and adventurous. The film also includes a comical scene depicting Mr. Big as a feared crime boss, inspired by Vito Corleone in the opening scene of The Godfather. zoo1However, the single greatest highlight of Zootopia is the DMV scene, which features a riotous back-and-forth between Flash, a three-toed sloth, and Nick and Judy. Flash operates almost in slow motion (as you’d expect a sloth would), and everything plays out hysterically! The movie is worth the watch for this scene alone. Zootopia is rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action.

Zootopia trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWM0ct-OLsM

Academy Award nominations for Zootopia:

Best Animated Feature (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Clark Spencer)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

10. Nocturnal Animals

Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 10 – Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-2Nocturnal Animals is a psychological thriller written and directed by Tom Ford, with a screenplay adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. The film follows Susan (Amy Adams), a rich art gallery owner in Los Angeles. One day, Susan receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) that contains the manuscript for his newest novel, which is dedicated to her. As Susan reads further and further into Edward’s sadistic thriller, the more unsettled she becomes.

nocturnal-1Many of you know Tom Ford from his prominent position among fashion royalty (or from the catchy line “I don’t pop molly, I rock Tom Ford” from Jay-Z’s 2013 hit “Tom Ford”), but Ford is also one hell of a filmmaker. The 55-year-old designer first broke into Hollywood with his 2009 debut effort A Single Man, a heartfelt and poignant drama about a gay university professor dealing with the loss of his partner, which earned Colin Firth an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. A Single Man was an amazing film, but Ford has truly outdone himself with his sophomore effort Nocturnal Animals. He has an almost innate ability to create the picture-perfect blend of style and story, and his venture into noir here is to cinema’s benefit.

nocturnal-5What Ford excels the most at in Nocturnal Animals is his storytelling. Tom Ford seamlessly intertwines three separate narratives: the past, the present, and the fiction. We spend time following present-day Susan, as well as exploring her failed marriage to Edward many years ago—all the while, we see a visual representation of Edward’s novel acted out while present-day Susan reads the book. It is a unique storytelling device that thrives thanks to the profoundly creative mind of its creator. Ford fiercely examines love, heartbreak, revenge, and the notion that we can never turn back time to right our wrongs—the story is disturbing and beautiful, all at the same time. Nocturnal Animals is not a perfect film; but I assure you, it is a striking piece of cinema that absolutely sticks with you!

nocturnal-4In Nocturnal Animals, Ford has brought together a stellar cast of actors, each with his or her own talents and contributions that make this film so great. For starters, Amy Adams thrives as Susan—she has always been one of my favorite actresses, and, per usual, she shines in every one of her scenes. Further, I am surprised Jake Gyllenhaal has not gotten more attention for his magnificent portrayal of two characters: Edward in the “past” scenes and Tony in the visual depictions of Edward’s novel. Edward and Tony are two vastly different characters, and Gyllenhaal nails the dichotomy in his performance of both roles.

nocturnal-3The two actors garnering the most attention, though, are Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Although Taylor-Johnson won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor (upsetting Mahershala Ali in the process), he did not even receive a nomination at the Oscars; conversely, Shannon snagged an Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actor category. Both actors are exceptional talents in Nocturnal Animals, and I greatly enjoyed their performances. Shannon plays an inexplicable Texas lawman in Edward’s novel, and he knocks his performance out of the park. On the other hand, Taylor-Johnson stole the show for me as the terrifying Ray, the ringleader of a band of thugs in Edward’s novel that torment Tony and his family on the side of the highway in the single greatest scene in the film. Although his character is not one the Academy usually celebrates, I truly believe he deserved that nomination over Shannon. Nocturnal Animals is rated R for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language.

Nocturnal Animals trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-H1Ii1LjyFU

Academy Award nominations for Nocturnal Animals:

Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Michael Shannon)