As we near the end of the year, I wanted to highlight some films that are so good you don't want to miss them. I called the first dispatch "Lucky 13 Must-See Films", but as I started listing other films at the end of that article, I realized they needed a separate discussion. It just so happens that I found another 13, so I am calling them a baker's dozen (that extra confection the baker throws in for good will). Most of the films are in theaters right now and you can spend time over Thanksgiving, or at some point before the end of the year catching up with them. Others may not open until later, or on Christmas Day. And remember, there are still many films I have not yet seen. So I may have to present a Part III. Also, please watch for the Top Ten Movie Lists of the film critics at RogerEbert.com that we will publish closer to the end of the year. But for now, enjoy!
1. Hidden Figures
I was so blindsided by Theodore Melfi's fact-based drama that I initially found myself unable to get up from my chair as the end credits began to roll. I had to remain seated for a few more moments and allow myself to fully process emotionally what I had seen. This film tells the astonishing true story of three African-American female trailblazers whose unsung achievements at NASA played crucial roles in the program's first space missions. Their skills in computing, mathematics and engineering are what we usually find in STEM programs, and are usually not associated with women, and rarely with African-American women. In all my years of schooling I had never heard of them, even when I studied Fortran. Interestingly, I was first told about the contributions of these women by a British physicist at a conference on science in recent years. But I would have never thought about little details, like segregated bathrooms in the work place, or separate buildings for workers of color. This is a story whose time has come, not only for the historical value, but for the beautiful acting by the lead heroines played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. Though it's maddening that it took this long for the women portrayed to be honored for their genius, I don't think they could have asked for a better tribute. It opens Christmas Day.
Mick Jackson's "Denial" tells the gripping fact-based tale of a Holocaust denier, David Irving (played by Timothy Spall), who took a revered American historian, Deborah Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz), to court in England, forcing her to prove that the genocide actually took place. Spall portrays the tyranny of egocentric ignorance so menacingly well that it sends chills down the spines of those who lived through or read about that period of history, and who are afraid it can be repeated. Do you recognize any of those types of characters in the news? What does it say about today?
At first, it seems as if Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi drama will follow the same pattern of recent films that portray mankind's connection with the cosmos as a metaphor for loss ("Gravity" and "Interstellar" being two prime examples, and both fine films). Yet, once again, Amy Adams brings her A-game (she is also in "Nocturnal Animals") and helps make this remarkably thoughtful picture more interested in the circuity of time and how we are able to embrace life with the knowledge that one day it will end. "Arrival" is also hailed as an intelligent picture about a more enlightened way to interact with beings from another planet. However, we are also shown the actions nations take when they act out of fear. Once again, Villeneuve takes us into deeper cinematic and emotional territory.
4. Maya Angelou and Still I Rise
Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules' very informative and poignant documentary explores the life of one of my favorite people, the iconic writer, poet, dancer, actress and activist, Maya Angelou. Even those who think they know all about Dr. Angelou will be surprised by many details in her life brought to life in this film. To see a young Maya dance and seduce and make decisions about her life as an entertainer is quite bracing. And to follow her journey into the amazing woman we came to know is equally poignant. How she managed to survive everything in her life with such an exalted spirit is a lesson in itself. We could all benefit from bottling up her spirit and keeping it with us during the days ahead.
Some audience members may have a difficult time with Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," which explores the relationship between a serial rapist and his prey (Isabelle Huppert), who refuses to be a victim. It is Huppert's great performance, above all, that makes this film so compelling. In her recent interview with Matt Fagerholm, she spoke of the film's relevance. “With the threat of the world becoming so misogynistic, I think it’s important to show women like this who avoid man’s weaknesses as much as possible,” said Huppert. “The men that Michèle encounters are mediocre or fragile or failures. In a way, the film takes place in a post-male era where men have faded into something that is very difficult for women to connect with.”
6. Nocturnal Animals
Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals" proves that his filmmaker credentials earned with his first film, "A Single Man," were not a fluke. Here, he creates a mood that leaves us vaguely uncomfortable from its bizarre opening credits with obese women exhibited as works of art in an exhibition, onward. The movie cuts back and forth between the present and a fictional past. In the present, we have the magnificent Amy Adams as an art gallery owner who, on the surface, has everything, a handsome husband (Armie Hammer), wealth and fame. One day she receives a manuscript in the mail penned by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) telling a creepy, but hopefully, fictional yarn about murders which may or may not have taken place. Then the beautifully designed Tom Ford surface of her life begins to crumble as she realizes how deeply she hurt Gyllenhaal and the love that they once shared. The acting in the film is pretty spectacular, even Laura Linney's brief cameo ratchets it up a notch. But it is Michael Shannon who steals every one of his scenes as an ailing detective hellbent on solving the murder. Ford takes us into some pretty dark places in this tale adapted from a book by Austin Wright.
7. A Monster Calls
Director J.A. Bayona's lovely meditation on loss took me completely by surprise at a time when I was not exactly excited about seeing yet another film about a kid who befriends a computer-animated giant. However, Lewis MacDougall is terrific as a young man wrestling with volatile emotions while facing the fragile mortality of his ailing mother (Felicity Jones). I am not sure very young children can handle this film because some of the scenes when the monster appears (voiced winningly by Liam Neeson), are scary, with tree roots ripping away and grounds crumbling. And the subject matter is as engrossing for adults as for tweens. I was impressed with how frankly the movie dealt with emotions an adolescent facing a parent's death may feel. The parables told by the monster to illustrate life's lessons were not a matter of black and white, there were many shades of grey. Also refreshing was the complexity of the boy's relationship with his Dad (Toby Kebbell) and his grandmother (played appropriately austerely by Sigourney Weaver).
I love this latest Disney film with it's high-spirited brown-eyed heroine, Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho). Though she is destined to become the chief of her village in a fictional Polynesian island somewhere in the South Pacific, she insists she is no Princess. And true enough, her life's goals or trajectory are never tied to who she will love or marry. As her wise Grandmother Tala tells her, she is good enough just as she is. And what she yearns to do is set sail on the seas. They have been calling to her since she could remember. She gets a chance to go on her quest when she is called upon to find Maui, who stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti, a Mother Nature figure who can't restore the bounty of the islands until she is reunited with it. The film's story and great look pays homage to a mixture of cultures, including the Maori, Hawaiian, and others. Everything is kicked into high Disney gear with the preening character of the demigod Maui, brought hilariously to the screen by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who was just voted People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. And if that isn't enough, it is scored by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of "Hamilton" fame. This one is fun for the whole family.
9. The Eagle Huntress
Like "Moana," this documentary from Sony Pictures Classics is also a rousing girl power tale about a young woman triumphantly defying the oppressive traditions of her culture. Director Otto Bell centers his lens on 13-year-old Aisholpan, the first female eagle hunter in twelve generations of her Kazakh family. This film hypnotically takes us into the everyday lives of this family, and helps us to see from Aisholpan's point of view, what it is like to be a girl and yet have a natural talent and desire for something that has only traditionally been available to males. Daisy Ridley, the heroine of the latest "Star Wars" trilogy, provides the narration.
10. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Ang Lee's drama is, like his Oscar-winning "Life of Pi," a technological gamble, shot at a frame rate that can create the illusion of ultra-clarity, especially when viewed in 3D. Yet the story itself is also quite compelling. Based on a novel by Ben Fountain, it follows a 19-year-old American soldier (Joe Alwyn) home during his victory tour after serving in Iraq. Lee gives us another film unlike any of his others, and just as fascinating in both its technical achievement and its emotion. The young soldier and his Bravo squad are paraded across America to perform in a Halftime Show at Thanksgiving. After fighting in Iraq and learning to kill or be killed, they are to serve as background for Beyonce and Destiny's Child. We get to see this from Billy's viewpoint with the aid of augmented and virtual reality-like cameras as they cut from Billy's battlefield memories, to his reactions as well as to the football crowd congratulating him. He realizes that the horrors of war he experienced have not a ripple on the day-to-day lives of those who hail him as a hero. The film moves along at a measured pace, but manages to be a telling achievement.
11. Hell or High Water
David Mackenzie's modern day western managed to provide enormously enjoyable escapism while still crafting a timely meditation on the economic divide in our country. No wonder it became this summer's sleeper hit. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers who resort to bank robbery in a desperate attempt to save their family ranch, while being pursued by a Texas Ranger (played by a very funny Jeff Bridges).
Winner of the Best Director prize at Cannes, Cristian Mungiu's suspenseful drama centers on a Romanian father (Adrian Titieni) who is determined to help his daughter (Maria-Victoria Dragus of "The White Ribbon") pass exams that will provide her with a ticket out of the country and hopefully toward a better life. Yet when she becomes a victim of assault, the father is faced with a moral dilemma: should he break the rules of a corrupt system in order to ensure his daughter's potentially bright future? It is very interesting that most of the films in this crop of must-sees seem to present questions, and moral entanglements that can apply to our present day situation in America. Is this just a way of filtering things through a certain lens or does every action, every film, every statement seem to resonate more now than they would during more relaxed times in history?
Another Romanian film, this one directed by Cristi Puiu, may sound like a long slog on paper: it's a three-hour film set in a cramped apartment where an excruciatingly tense family gathering is taking place with not very pleasant people. Yet the film is, in fact, an endlessly fascinating exploration of the fractured dynamics between people reluctantly united by blood who view their years under communism through different prisms. How were they each affected by life under their deposed dictator? What is the role of religion in their lives? What is their level of responsibility for their lives and those of their fellow countrymen, and what is the role of the state? Puiu tackles all of these questions with precise timing as there is much opening and slamming of doors, and peering in on conversations that never seem to be complete. There are also several laughs to be had amidst the unease. The film took home the top prize at this year's Chicago International Film Festival. One suspects that Thanksgiving gatherings across the country may possibly look not all that different from this one.
Click here to read Part I, “Lucky 13 Must-See Films of 2016,” featuring the films “Loving,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Disturbing the Peace,” “Moonlight,” “I, Daniel Blake,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Doctor Strange,” “Toni Erdmann,” “Captain Fantastic,” “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lion” and “Hacksaw Ridge.”