As I go over the films of this last year, these are the ones that rise above the others for me. I usually pick twelve films because I like the alliteration of Darrel’s Dozen. This year I’m only naming eleven because I haven’t seen Martin Scorsese’s Silence yet. Given the subject matter and Scorsese’s expertise, I’m sure it will qualify for a high spot for the year. So assume that it’s on the list, although I can’t really name it unseen. So given that, I’ll move on to my favorites of 2016.
- The Man Who Knew Infinity. Yeah, I know this isn’t making many top ten lists, but for me this is a wonderful film about faith. Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), a Hindu self-taught mathematician, goes to Cambridge to study under atheistic professor G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). Hardy demands proofs (a key concept in mathematics). Ramanujan only cares about equations that “express a thought of God”. One may think that math is very cut and dried, but for Ramanujan it is an experience of the divine. For viewers this is an exercise in what constitutes faith—what can be proved or what is beautiful. (Shout out to Newport Beach Film Festival for having my top film of the year in its program.)
- The Red Turtle. An animated film with no dialogue. It is part Robinson Caruso, part Genesis 2. It is mythic storytelling all done visually—and beautifully. Since it’s animated I should point out that there may not be much here in terms of entertainment for children, but for adults it can be well worth the time. From Studio Ghibli, but made by European filmmakers.
- Kubo and the Two Strings. Yes, another animated film—and almost a coin toss with The Red Turtle for which is better. This too is a mythic tale—this one of a hero’s quest. This one is much more likely to be enjoyed by the whole family.
- The Innocents. You knew I couldn’t go long without a foreign language film. In 1945 Poland a young French Red Cross nurse comes across a convent with several pregnant nuns—the victims of rape, first by German, then Russian soldiers. She must win their trust, but she must also keep everything very secret or it will ruin the convent. Questions of faith and fear play out through the story.
- Eye in the Sky. Warfare by drone is becoming more common in the world today. This film looks at some of the moral dilemmas associated with that kind of warfare. An American drone crew under the direction of a British colonel is searching for a terrorist in Kenya. The mission creeps into ever more complicated territory that requires ever higher authority. All the time, the clock is ticking—and a little girl is playing just outside.
- Arrival. This is one of the most intelligent sci-fi films in quite a while. While the theme of fear of aliens is very relevant, the film is really more about what it means to understand someone else. Linguistics and epistemology playout amid global and military politics.
- The Hunt for the Wilderpeople. In this New Zealand comedy, a troubled child is placed with a foster family, where he meets unconditional love from his new “auntie”. “Uncle” is less enthused. When Auntie suddenly dies and the authorities are hunting them, the two must come to terms with each other—both of whom were Auntie’s rescue projects.
- Miss Sloane. The power of lobbyists in the American political system is the setting for this drama about ethics and morality. To what depths will people sink to achieve their goals?
- Fences. Film version of an August Wilson play. An African American father and husband fulfills all of his responsibilities—but if he has not love…?
- I, Daniel Burke. Ken Loach won his second Palme d’Or with this film about the labyrinthine social welfare system that often dehumanizes those seeking help.
- Knight of Cups. Terrance Malick’s take off from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is something to be experienced more than analyzed or understood. To call it esoteric may be an understatement.
And if for some reason Silence doesn’t make the list, The Lobster is in line to fill out the Dozen. It is a surreal story of people who must find love in thirty days or be transformed into animals. The humor is very dark and very dry.