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Lucky 13 Must-See Films of 2016

With this year's awards season in full swing, I wanted to highlight 13 films from this year that I have truly, deeply loved. They range from mega-blockbusters and festival favorites to nonfiction gems and foreign sleepers that have yet to be released. Any of these films could easily be major players this season and will hopefully score nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which is now more diverse than ever. But I want to emphasize that this is not my end of the year list because there are still so many films I haven't seen. This is just what I have seen so far. 

1. Loving

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga portray Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple who were imprisoned in Virginia for getting married in 1958. Their story eventually led to a historic Supreme Court ruling, Loving v. Virginia, that invalidated all laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Director Jeff Nichols has made a film as subdued and eloquent as his real-life subjects, portraying the truth of their love and right to freedom with a simplicity that is arrestingly beautiful.

2. The Birth of a Nation

Though the film became mired in the controversy regarding the personal life of its writer/director/star, Nate Parker, I believe that the picture deserves to be seen for its powerful staging of a vital tale from our history. Parker delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as Nat Turner, a black preacher in the antebellum South who led an uprising of his fellow slaves three decades prior to the Civil War.

3. Disturbing the Peace

One of the most enthusiastic responses I've ever witnessed at Ebertfest was received by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young's extraordinary documentary, "Disturbing the Peace." It explored the lives of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters who have become united in a movement called Combatants for Peace. In the midst of such a divided year in our country, this film gave me hope that peace can be achieved between even the most stubborn of enemies. In my interview with Apkon, he said that he believes the Combatants for Peace "represent and embody an energy and a consciousness that is emerging in the world in many ways. Yes, there is seemingly more polarization and extremism in the world—but also an energy of compassion, nonviolence and peace."

4. Moonlight

Few films this years have been more critically acclaimed than Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight," a masterful drama following a young man during three pivotal moments in his life: as a boy (Alex R. Hibbert), a teen (Ashton Sanders) and a troubled man (Trevante Rhodes). Roger was a great admirer of Jenkins' debut feature, 2008's "Medicine for Melancholy," and wrote that the director "has the confidence to know the precise note he wants to strike. This isn't a Statement film or a bold experiment in style; it's more like a New Yorker story that leaves you thinking, yes, I see how they feel."

5. I, Daniel Blake

Roger and I both were most moved by acts of goodness, and I have no doubt he would've teared up during Ken Loach's well-deserved Palme d'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Comedian Dave Johns plays the titular carpenter who battles England's dehumanizing welfare system while befriending an impoverished mother (Hayley Squires). 

6. I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck's gripping documentary takes a deep dive into James Baldwin's unfinished novel about race in America. What makes this so engrossing is that we are hearing Baldwin's actual words, sometimes read by the inimitable Samuel L. Jackson

7. Doctor Strange

No film I've seen this year was more visually dazzling than Scott Derrickson's eye-popping and very enjoyable blockbuster, "Doctor Strange," the latest installment in the Marvel film franchise. Tilda Swinton was exquisite as ever, and though there has been controversy regarding the casting of her in a role originally conceived as an Asian man, shape-shifting has forever been the essence of her career, and her performance will surely silence naysayers. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character with pitch perfect precision at every turn. This is a thinking person's super hero movie. Derrickson and the other writers put just enough physics, spiritualism and mysticism into the movie to make it interesting for people who have an understanding of a multidimensional universe, astral travel, sacred geometry and the Flower of Life. 

8. Toni Erdmann

Maren Ade's explosively funny comedy, a German-Austrian co-production set in Romania, was largely favored to win the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and though it's not scheduled to open in the U.S. until Christmas, it will be a holiday treat well worth waiting for. Peter Simonischek brings down the house as a lonely widower who finds increasingly quirky ways to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sandra Hüller), donning disguises of an absurdist nature in order to infiltrate her life. It is rare to find a script this smart about a father-daughter relationship where the daughter is yearning to fit into corporate life, when all the father wants for her is happiness. This film is Germany's official Oscar submission.

9. Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen gives a naturalistic portrayal of a father who chooses to take his family off the grid and raise them in nature. I thought he and the whole ensemble of child actors were great. I frankly don't understand the vitriol that has been aimed at Matt Ross' wonderful film. Anyone who thinks that his story of a father raising his kids in the woods was too far-fetched clearly doesn't  know the myriad families out there who share similar beliefs and lifestyles. True these may have been more prevalent in the 1960's and 70's than today. But as our political campaigns make clear, there are more of them still in existence than one would suspect. Frank Langella is great as the rich grandfather who detests Viggo's character for hijacking his daughter and grandchildren. His confrontation adds believability to this tale. 

10. La La Land

Two years after his bruising drama "Whiplash" won over critics and audiences alike, 31-year-old Damien Chazelle is poised to have one of the biggest hits of this year's Oscar season with his captivating musical, fusing old-fashioned Hollywood magic with an emotional reality more akin to "A Star is Born." Emma Stone lights up the screen as a struggling actress who falls for a musician (Ryan Gosling) whose career is also floundering. The chemistry these two share, both in dance and in witty banter, is joyous to behold.

11. Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan's long-awaited third feature deserves all of the praise it has received since debuting at Sundance. Casey Affleck delivers the best performance of his career to date as a man forced to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother's sudden death. This causes Affleck to confront the ghosts of his tragic past he had spent much of his adult life straining to avoid. A late encounter between him and Michelle Williams is a guaranteed tear-jerker. 

12. Lion

My last two films on this list are true stories that are, like "Loving" and "The Birth of a Nation," powerfully and poignantly told. Garth Davis's drama, "Lion," tells the tale of an Indian boy who becomes separated from his family and winds up thousands of miles from home. Much of the film's first hour chronicles the plight of little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) as he desperately avoids one danger after another before he's adopted by Australian foster parents. Dev Patel plays Saroo as a young man, and his commanding performance will be a surprise to those audiences who have become used to his neurotic persona in the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" movies. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are also very touching as the compassionate couple who adopts Saroo.

13. Hacksaw Ridge

Whatever Mel Gibson's flaws may be as a person,  as a filmmaker, he is sometimes flawless. That is certainly the case with his latest film, a rousing wartime drama about a conscientious objector who insisted on serving on the battlefield in WWII, saving lives rather than taking them. Andrew Garfield, in a role far from Spiderman, but closer to his everyman performance in "99 Homes," shines as real-life superhero Desmond Doss. This movie has the retro feel of an old-fashioned studio film, but it was so well-made I didn't mind 

In my Critics Roundtable video from Cannes, I named "I, Daniel Blake," "Toni Erdmann" and "Loving" as my top three films of the festival. Watch the full video below to hear my conversation with critics Barbara Scharres and Lisa Nesselson.

2016 Cannes Segment 6: RogerEbert.com from The Mint on Vimeo.

I am conflicted. We set out to include 13 films, but there are others that could have easily filled in those slots. Other highlights from 2016 (and also must see films) have included the very informative and poignant documentary, "Maya Angelou and Still I Rise," by Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules; Mick Jackson's "Denial," the gripping Holocaust denial tale with compelling performances from Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall; Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," with its great Isabelle Huppert performance; the remarkably thoughtful sci-fi film, "Arrival," by Denis Villeneuve; Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals," with its outstanding performances from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon; David Mackenzie's "Hell or High Water," this summer's sleeper hit; Cristian Mungiu's "Graduation," winner of the Best Director prize at Cannes; and Cristi Puiu's "Sieranevada," winner of the top prize at this year's Chicago International Film Festival. 

I want to reiterate that these are NOT my end of the year selections, as I have so many other movies I am eager to catch up on such as Ava DuVernay's "13th" and Theodore Melfi's "Hidden Figures," as well as new films by Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis and many others. Stay tuned...


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