I’ll have you know that this is the latest this website has ever posted a “10 Best” list in its six-plus year history. I want to say that 2016 exhausted me, but it didn’t. “Every Movie Has a Lesson” published a personal-best 114 film reviews in 2016. Even after a record year, there is part of me that sits here and knows there was room for more. The to-do list of recommended films and overdue titles is never empty.
I can only see so much and 2016 got my best. I juggled my own writing with co-founding, co-directing, growing, and maintaining the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Starting from scratch, its inaugural year was a soaring success, complete with many new and invaluable friends and peers.
No matter what, I am exceedingly grateful for the access and privilege I have had (thank you press credentials and awards screeners). Let me put a bow on 2016 with my selections of the best of the year. Matching tradition on this website, each film will be paired with a link to the full review and its best life lesson. Enjoy!
1. “LA LA LAND”
Don’t buy the so-called “over-love.” Damien Chazelle’s film is pure magic on every aesthetic level and the most wondrous big-screen experience I had at a film all year. This spectacle is why we fall in love with this artistic medium of cultural expression. (FULL REVIEW)
BEST LESSON: FANTASIES RARELY BECOME REALITY— To loop the lessons together, people envision fantasies in both their personal and professional lives throughout their lives. When someone starts a new job, they picture themselves being the best and most unencumbered at what they do in the same way a new spouse promises to be the best possible man or woman in the world. “La La Land” plays those flights of fancy and big dreams out on screen with all of the woulda-coulda-shouldas in between. Both in the film and in our own lives, reality swoops in to remind us of the world’s limits and our own flaws and shortcomings.
Pablo Larrain’s film is a flawless anti-biopic that still encapsulates all you need to know about an icon in less than two hours. An American director with this same subject matter which bloat this film to cinematic gluttony. Instead, you have a taut piece of pure finery at every second and centimeter. (FULL REVIEW)
BEST LESSON: THE POISE TO BE FOUND IN GRIEF— Imagine your worst personal tragedy put on display for all of the world to see. The public celebrated the dignity of Jackie Kennedy in face of her horrible loss, which had to be no easy feat. The closed door events of the film show the roots of that historic poise being challenged first and then ultimately strengthened by the doubts and burdens of real grief born out of unimaginable tragedy.
3. “LIFE, ANIMATED”
This is the first time that a documentary has cracked one of my “10 Best” lists and “Life, Animated” was the outright number one in the clubhouse from May until October. In all my years of watching movies, I have never seen a more perfect example and embodiment of this website’s titular statement. Stories like this confirm that my head will never be in the clouds while sitting in a theater. (FULL REVIEW)
BEST LESSON: EVERY MOVIE HAS A LESSON— I said it the opening paragraph, I say it in every review, and I mean it. Call them fiction and disposable entertainment all you want, but movies can inspire and create emotions and memories. Movies can teach and help people relate to anything. Look no further than Owen Suskind for proof over fanciful theory. When it works, it works. When it’s right, it’s so very right.
“Moonlight” creates powerful empathy from one of the most difficult scenarios, and does so with impressive emotion and unmistakable heart. Complicated and tortured one moment and liberating the next, the film deserves all of its awards and attention. It’s the boldest and best statement film of the year. (FULL REVIEW)
BEST LESSON: CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS NEED AN ACTIVE LISTENER IN THEIR LIVES— If you want a direct, actionable change to take away from “Moonlight” the second you walk out the door, it’s to engage conversations and relationships with the kids your life. Be a father figure, mentor presence, or the actual responsible parent. Someone needs to talk to the reserved, confused, and quiet Chirons of the world that do not share their feelings or have their questions answered. Children endure and digest more than we given them credit for, yet still comprehend less than we fully realize, especially when they mask their pain. They need a sounding board and confidant to break stigmas and define truths.
5. “MANCHESTER BY THE SEA”
Kenneth Lonergan delivered a character-driven near-masterpiece of frankness, natural behaviors, honesty, and crushing emotions. I highly appreciate the arm’s length distance and breathing room this film utilized to present its narrative. Something in-your-face would have felt preachy. That final Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams scene together is really something. (FULL REVIEW)
BEST LESSON: THE BROKEN HEARTS THAT CANNOT BE HEALED— All of the malaise and excruciating agony held by the characters in this film stems from damage that cannot be corrected. In a culture of pride where people do not share or handle their feelings with others, it’s a big step when characters here admit defeat and recognize a broken heart, making some coping possible.
6. “A MONSTER CALLS”
I delayed writing this “10 Best” list until I saw Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” thinking it had the pedigree to make this list. Little did I know that two days later J.A. Bayona’s family fantasy drama would hit me like a ton of bricks. Wonderful messages bleed from fantasy and truth in this absolute winner. (FULL REVIEW COMING SOON)
BEST LESSON: PAINFUL TRUTHS BALANCING COMFORTING LIES— This lesson speaks to a polarity of conscience. Sometimes, we need to hear things or tell ourselves things that soothe our hearts and minds. Those words may not always be truthful, and we might even know they’re not, but they help. In other moments, only the truth will do, even if it hurts.
7. “SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU”
I couldn’t have been more impressed by the enamoring charm of this film to make us often forget that we are watching who will eventually become two of the most recognizable people in the world. Its soft brush for romance and humanity made for one of the best date films of this ere. (FULL REVIEW)
BEST LESSON: FIRST DATES ARE ALWAYS GREAT STORIES— If you ever want an interesting look into a married couple, ask them “Hey, how did you two meet?” There’s a good chance their first date is part of a lovely and personal yarn. Watch them reminisce on unforgettable memories. Watch them flutter with rekindled feelings. Call me a softy, but I believe just about every married couple has a love story fit for a big screen movie. Real-life nuances and unfiltered emotions beat fancy scripts and fictional acting every time.
8. “COMING THROUGH THE RYE”
It wouldn’t be a “10 Best” list from me, or a good year of film for that matter, without one “coming-of-age” story making a tremendous impression. This completely hidden gem chronicles a disillusioned boarding school student, played by Alex Wolff, inspired by J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher and the Rye” enough to seek out the reclusive author’s (Chris Cooper) permission to adapt his classic novel for the stage. (FULL REVIEW)
BEST LESSON: FINDING THE BRAVERY TO DO SOMETHING OF YOUR OWN— Jamie feels that staging “The Catcher in the Rye” at school can validate his value and his coolness independent from the typical popularity. He feels that if others can see him play Holden that they will understand him better through the play’s performance and artistic expression that relates to him. The real truth is the courage to represent yourself, blaze your own trail, and create your own masterpiece with your own life, without standing on the shoulders of others.
9. “PETE’S DRAGON”
It perplexes me to no end how rare this type of family film is nowadays in a marketplace inundated by animated toilet humor and frenetic stupidity. Disney gets this complete makeover of a remake soaringly right in the heart and whimsy department. Futher, I have no idea while the Mouse House is pushing “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory,” and “Moana” greater than this film. It deserves a bigger and better audience. (FULL REVIEW)
BEST LESSON: THE RECIPROCITY BETWEEN CAREGIVERS—A caregiver, be that a friend, parent, guardian, or other figure, gives unconditional support to those who need it. In the most ideal symbiotic examples, the caregiver is rewarded in return with a boost of self-worth knowing they helped someone or something in the right direction. Elliot and Pete look after and rub off on each other in that very way, cementing their ever-present bond.
10. “THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS”
Just like #8, it wouldn’t be a good year or a proper list without one classic melodrama (another sucker sub-genre for me). Derek Cianfrance masterfully stepped from writing his own opuses to adapting someone else’s. The end result had immense emotional resonance and sumptuous artistic beauty, from the visuals and music to the performances and heavy themes.
BEST LESSON: THE POWER OF ENDURING LOVE—To borrow again from Dirks, the “resolute endurance, sacrificial acts, and steadfast bravery” that arise in “The Light Between Oceans” are prerequisites of the genre and necessary to the overall arc of forgiveness versus resentment. Those actions originate here through enduring love shown in many forms, including love shared between spouses and the inseparable bonds between parents and their children that continue until the camera fades.
HONORABLE MENTIONS AND THE NEXT BATCH:
16. “Blue Jay” (review soon!)
22. “Swiss Army Man”
23. “The Invitation”
24. “Elvis & Nixon”
25. “Kubo and the Two Strings”
DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based, press-credentialed film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. He is also one of the founders and directors of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends. Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.