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Reviews of three new films and picks for the 10 best of 2016

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LA LA LAND and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA are like a contrasting duo to me. LA LA LAND is eternally buoyant and dreamlike but laced with reality as Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play Hollywood hopefuls. MANCHESTER is endlessly sad with a brother’s death, funeral details, family obligations and painful memories unsettling an underachiever superbly acted by Casey Affleck. There’s a surprising amount of humor too in this melancholy study of real life.             

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP: This modern treatment of a lesser-known Jane Austen novel is surprisingly acerbic, very funny and probably more truthful than most movies like it about the status of women in regency-period England.

Kate Beckinsale plays a widow prowling for a husband among the elegant people, country houses and witty chatter we know so well. But Whit Stillman, over from the US, has also found caustic undertones we don’t always notice.

MOONLIGHT: After the white Oscars fuss earlier this year, we suddenly got three high-profile and worthy films about blacks in the US. Besides Fences and Loving, there’s this very moving and beautifully crafted story of a young man growing up gay and pondering what race and masculinity mean to him.

It’s told in three ages, boyhood, teenage and adult, and has equal doses of bigheartedness and toughness.

EYE IN THE SKY: I caught up to this one just two days after the terrorist attack on that Berlin Christmas market. That made the issues it debates feel extra relevant.

Alan Rickman (in his last film), Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul and others on three continents watch some amazingly-high res video transmissions of a suicide bomber being outfitted in a house in Kenya. Outside, on the street a young girl is sitting at a table selling bread. So, what’s one life compared to maybe 80 if the bomber gets to a public mall? The arguments snap and bite as the suspense ups to extreme.   

HELL OR HIGH WATER: It looks like a modern western but plays like a bit of 1930s social realism. Farmers are going broke; banks are foreclosing, people can’t do anything about it. Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) do something: they rob the bank that’s threatening them.

A Texas Ranger with an impish send of humor (Jeff Bridges) gets on their trail and down home philosophy mixes with frequent signs of the economic chasm country folk are in. The film has a bleak vision but is great fun to watch.

ZOOTOPIA: It’s been a great year for animated films. Think Moana, Kubo and The Secret Life of Pets but this one tops them. A female rabbit strives to rise in the world by leaving her parents’ carrot farm and trying for a spot on a big city police force. That’s enough for most kids’ films.

This one goes much further. We get a film noir mystery, fear-mongering leaders, prejudice and civic corruption. And cultural references that are actually witty. This one is just as much for parents as for their kids.

THE WITNESS: It’s also been a great year for documentaries. In Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky explained how the 1% got to be so rich. In Weiner, we saw Anthony Weiner and his sexting habit mess up his own election campaign long before he damaged Hillary Clinton’s. In De Palma, the veteran director took us through his entire filmography with background stories and honest evaluations. Forgotten bluesmen were found again in Two Trains Running. KONELĪNE is a gorgeous visit to Northern B.C.   

I’m going with WITNESS though because it represents both tremendous journalism and the search for historical truth. The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City is a notorious example of public apathy. This film, based on some great sleuthing by her brother, disputes that and claims that much of what we believe about the case is wrong. It also tells us much we haven’t known before. Digging for information is almost thrilling in this film.

MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART is one of several films from China this year with not so subtle critical comments about that country. Ten Years, from Hong Kong, and Old Stone, made in China by former Vancouver resident Johnny Ma, are preceded by this three part film that serves as a lament for what has been lost in the miracle economic boom. Director Jia Zhangke seems most concerned about the loss of Chinese-ness among his characters. They chase money, move to Australia or Toronto, even name a child Dollar and lose their language and respect for their ancestors. A richly-detailed film.     

THE INNOCENTS is a mysterious and grim one from Poland but probably the most powerful film of the summer. French director Anne Fontaine, working from a nurse’s diary, tells the true story of a group of Benedictine nuns who found they were pregnant after Russian soldiers came through at the end of World War II and raped them. There’s a lot of talk about faith, obedience and doing the right thing. The nurse has to break the rules to help them and also defy the head nun who fears public shame. Hard to imagine, but there’s an optimistic ending.

More in New Movies

Greek tragedy goes modern with Antigone, black family life in Waves and a film artist’s self portrait

Also: Isabelle Huppert hosts a crowd as Frankie, notes on some highlights at Whistler, including a time travel enigma and a seemingly under-achieving children’s film

A scary Marriage Story, a classy Knives Out murder mystery and fighting DuPont in Dark Waters

Also black lives matter for Queen & Slim, the Winnipeg General Strike recalled in Stand! and an actor’s true story in Honey Boy

Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers; Elsa and friends in Frozen II and cops and robbers mayhem inside 21 Bridges

Also a nostalgia binge thanks to a Recorder and a few gems from the European Film Festival
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