BAM’s top 10 movies of 2016: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ ‘Arrival,’ ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and ‘Hidden Figures’ top the list

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Art Parkinson voices Kubo and Charlize Theron voices Monkey in "Kubo and the Two Strings." Laika Entertainment photo

Art Parkinson voices Kubo and Charlize Theron voices Monkey in “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Laika Entertainment photo

Half of the movies on my favorite films list for 2016 boast women in the lead roles.

It wasn’t deliberate, but it feels appropriate. After all, women represent about half the population.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they were the stars of half the stories? I keeping hoping we’ll get there someday.

Although women also remained woefully underrepresented behind the scenes – especially in the director’s chair – some of the best movies of the year just past centered on refreshingly clever, competent and strong but still flawed female characters.

Several of those female-focused movies were of the animated variety. It was a sterling year for animated films, not just in quantity but in quality. Whether they were computer-generated or hand-crafted, many of these animated features boasted unforgettable storytelling and striking visuals.

Here are the 10 movies that made their mark on me in 2016:

1. Kubo and the Two Strings

“If you must blink, do it now,” the young one-eyed Japanese hero Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson, Game of Thrones) cautions viewers in the opening moments of Kubo and the Two Strings.

Audiences will be hard-pressed to find even an instant to close their eyes as the expansive animated fable takes them on an epic quest involving a towering sword-crowned skeleton, a sea of giant hypnotic eyes and the creepiest identical twins since the little girls in “The Shining.”

In an impressive year for animated filmmaking — every major studio released at least one animated effort, and Disney dropped the excellent offerings Zootopia, Moana and Pixar’s Finding Dory into theaters — the latest quirky adventure from Laika Entertainment introduced some of the most indelible cinematic images of 2016, from a massive ship crafted entirely of autumn leaves to an endearing half-man, half-beetle warrior.

Over the past decade, Laika has earned a reputation for doing things its own way: Not only is the Oregon boutique studio keeping the art of stop-motion moviemaking alive and pushing it forward with digital technology, but it also trusts children to handle the real-world darkness inherent in its fantastical tales. Many animated movies delve into subjects like family, grief and identity, but everywhere that most family-friendly movies zig, Kubo and the Two Strings manages to zag.

First-time director Travis Knight, Laika’s CEO, channels the likes of animation master Hayao Miyazaki, epic filmmaker David Lean and movie monster maker Ray Harryhausen in weaving the yarn of the quietly determined Kubo and his flight from his cold-blooded grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). With each strum of his guitar-like shamisen, Kubo’s musical adventures serve as potent reminders of the power of memories, magic and storytelling.

2. Arrival

It may be one of cinema’s most timeworn tropes, but the alien invasion has never been as emotionally resonant and thought-provoking as Denis Villeneuve’s (Sicario) elegantly cerebral science-fiction drama.

Five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams (American Hustle) gives the top performance of her already formidable career as top-flight linguist Louise Banks, who is recruited by a hardnosed military colonel (Forest Whitaker) to figure out how to communicate with an enigmatic alien race that has descended upon Earth.

As worldwide speculation runs rampant about the extra-terrestrials’ intent, she and quantum physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are tasked with entering one of the 12 alien pods hovering in various locations around the globe and gleaning everything they can about this unknown species.

Norman, Oklahoma, native Eric Heisserer’s script, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” is both tautly thrilling and intriguingly contemplative. Arrival is one of the great sci-fi movies in recent memory, one that constantly surprises and invites multiple viewings to plumb its depths.

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

For the second straight year, a film from writer-director Taika Waititi appears in the top three of my end-of-year movies list. The uproarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, which Waititi co-directed, co-wrote and co-starred in with frequent collaborator and fellow New Zealander Jemaine Clement, was No. 1 on my 2015 list. (Naturally, I’m now counting on Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” to be the greatest superhero movie of all time, the veritable Kanye West of superhero movies. Just kidding. Kind of.)

At turns hilarious and heartrending, Wilderpeople chronicles the misadventures of rebellious teenager Ricky (Julian Dennison) after he is sent to live on a remote farm in rural New Zealand. A national manhunt ensues when Ricky and his foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill), a curmudgeonly survivalist, disappear into the bush together.

The Sundance Film Festival favorite’s colorful characters and quirky humor seem to have resonated with my fellow Oklahomans: Wilderpeople won best narrative feature at Oklahoma City’s 2016 deadCenter Film Festival.

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, center, in a scene from "Hidden Figures." Twentieth Century Fox photo

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, center, in a scene from “Hidden Figures.” Twentieth Century Fox photo

4. Hidden Figures

The only thing not to love about Hidden Figures is how long it’s taken for people to learn about the vital role that a group of whip-smart African-American women played in putting the first U.S. astronauts into orbit.

Based on the book by first-time author Margot Lee Shetterly, the historical drama finally reveals the untold story of the pioneering mathematicians, engineers and computer programmers –since they were black and women, they were known as lowly “calculators” and largely barred from claiming credit for their work — who helped NASA launch the first men into space while enduring the indignities of racial segregation and misogynistic disregard.

Screenwriter Allison Schroeder and director/co-writer Theodore Melfi bring a thrilling urgency to the space race, and Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe and Golden Globe nominee Octavia Spencer are impossible not to root for as three working mothers mastering advanced arithmetic, raising their families and fighting for their rights. Henson’s explosion over the injustice of her half-mile trek to the NASA campus’ only colored ladies room is worth the price of admission alone, but the soundtrack featuring Monae, Pharrell Williams, Lalah Hathaway, Miles Davis and Ray Charles also provides plenty of reasons to cheer.

5. La La Land

Writer-director Damien Chazelle continues his exploration into the sacrifices musicians and other artists must make to create their art with this bittersweet song-and-dance spectacle, which won a record seven Golden Globe awards.

It may channel the golden age of musicals in its production values, but La La Land manages to capture the 21st-century zeitgeist, starting with its ambitious opening number, a show-stopping six-minute romp through gridlocked Los Angeles freeway traffic set to the bouncy tune “Another Day of Sun.”

Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and the rest of the artistic crew bring a quirky coolness and welcome touch of magical realism — that planetarium scene is one of the best cinematic moments of the year — to the love story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone, who shows that her casting in the Broadway revival of “Cabaret” wasn’t just a marketing ploy), who serves lattes in the coffee shop of a movie studio lot in between auditions, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a prickly jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own old-school club.

The tone is much brighter than Chazelle’s breakout film, the equally musical Whiplash (which made my top 10 movies list of 2014), but La La Land continues to explore how we pick the passions we ultimately devote our lives to pursuing.

Auli'i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson provide the voices of the lead characters in "Moana." Disney photo

Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson provide the voices of the lead characters in “Moana.” Disney photo

6. Moana

A visual and auditory feast of a film, Moana navigates the basic princess movie outline but manages to lift it like a boat on an ocean wave at every turn.

Disney took a team approach to its visually stunning high-seas adventure, and it pays off gorgeously, with Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) helming along with co-directors Chris Williams and Don Hall (Big Hero 6). Tony winner and “Hamilton” mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda crafted the soulful songs in concert with composer Mark Mancina and Samoan musician Opetaia Tavita Foa’I, and the musical numbers are teeming with catchy melodies and adventuresome lyrics.

Penned by Jared Bush (Zootopia), Moana isn’t some generic animated fairy tale; it’s respectfully rooted in Polynesian folklore. And its titular heroine (voiced by remarkable teenage newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, a native Hawaiian cast after a worldwide search) is no passive princess, her flowing dress, adorable animal sidekick and status as chieftain’s daughter notwithstanding.

Chosen by the ocean to be its champion, Moana is sent on a quest to wrangle the daring demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, who is of Polynesian descent and surprisingly impressive singing voice) and ferry him across the vast waves so he can restore a vital talisman he stole long ago.

Like the similarly terrific Zootopia, Moana refreshingly swaps the obligatory romance of so many Disney entries with an entertaining buddy movie vibe.

7. Captain America: Civil War

In this cinematic era when no less than half a dozen tentpole superhero movies will hit theaters with the force of Thor’s hammer in a single year, it takes more than cool fight scenes and colorful costumes for a comic book-based film to emerge as something special.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely uses characters like Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to explore one America’s fundamental issues: how to balance personal freedom and national security.

Even more, the film delves into a universal human concept with its exploration of the corrosive nature of vengeance and how it destroys lives and relationships.

At a time when social media and societal discord make it possible for even the smallest gestures to be magnified, politicized and criticized, may we all find a positive example in Cap’s conciliatory words to Iron Man:

“I wish we agreed. … I really do. I know you’re doing what you believe in, and that’s all any of us can do. That’s all any of us should.”

That directors Joe and Anthony Russo can fit in so much meaningful material in the midst of introducing Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), showing off a new Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and setting up for Avengers: Infinity War is a pretty superheroic feat.

Sasha Lane stars in "American Honey." A24 photo

Sasha Lane stars in “American Honey.” A24 photo

8. American Honey

Academy Award-winning writer-director Andrea Arnold (Wasp, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) may hail from England, but she captures something quintessentially, heartbreakingly American with her rambling road picture, which won the Jury Prize at Frances’ Cannes Film Festival.

A messy and mesmerizing coming-of-age story with an almost stream-of-consciousness flow, “American Honey” tags along with Star (stunning newcomer Sasha Lane) a poor, exploited teenager who regretfully leaves behind her younger siblings (and not so regretfully ditches her confusing array of no-good parental figures) in Muskogee and runs away to join a motley crew of disenfranchised youngsters selling magazines door to door.

Arnold lensed her first American-made film in various locales in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and North Dakota, but that alone doesn’t account for the authenticity she manages to bring to “American Honey.” The filmmaker took several extended road trips across the United States and spent months recruiting real-life “mag crew” sellers and spring breakers, including Lane, to star opposite Riley Keough’s (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) hard-bitten crew chief and Shia LaBeouf’s (Transformers) top seller, who romances Star with his scruffy allure.

When they aren’t telling whatever sob story gets people to fork over cash, the ragtag group travels cross-country in an old van, belting along to whatever song shuffles into the mix (the movie’s title comes from the Lady Antebellum tune of the same name), experimenting recklessly with sex, drugs and alcohol and crashing in cheap motel rooms. Along the way, they manage to become the closest any of them has come to having a family.

9. Manchester by the Sea

From the smallest, most mundane household chores to the chilly expanse of waves off Boston’s Cape Ann, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) reels viewers into a deeply affecting story of loss, grief and release that is all the more devastating because it refuses to deal in shallow platitudes or unrealistic notions of closure.

Casey Affleck gives a quietly powerhouse performance as Lee Chandler, a taciturn handyman who is summoned back to his hometown when his beloved but hard-headed brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies. Lee is surprised to learn that his brother has arranged for him to move into Joe’s home and take on guardianship of his boisterous teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Not only is the solitary Lee unprepared to raise a randy adolescent, but he’s also unable to cope with the prospect of living back in his old hometown, the place where a senseless tragedy left him utterly broken.

Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife and Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s estranged mother round out the finest ensemble cast in any film released this year, but Affleck’s turn as a man fundamentally changed by heartbreak has earned him a Golden Globe and a well-deserved place at the front of the Oscar race.

10. The Dressmaker

Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse (How to Make an American Quilt) directs and co-writes (with her husband and fellow filmmaker P.J. Hogan, Muriel’s Wedding) this idiosyncratic tragi-comedy based on Rosalie Ham’s novel of the same name. Set in 1962, the twisty tale of trauma, revenge and haute couture allows Kate Winslet to unleash her full femme fatale powers. The Oscar winner stars as the titular character, the glamorous but damaged Tilly Dunnage, a fashion designer who reluctantly returns to her rural Australian hometown to care for her mentally and physically ill mother (an almost unrecognizable Judy Davis).

Effectively exiled after she was accused of contributing to the death of a classmate, Tilly has blocked out the events that led up to her banishment, and her mother claims not to remember. So, Tilly sets out to piece together the mystery, using her skills as a dressmaker to draw details out of the shifty townsfolk.

The period fashions are almost as gorgeous as the Australian landscape, but neither can compete with how exquisitely Moorhouse assembles this cannily crafted yarn.

-BAM

 

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