By Bill Dudley

2016 was a very good year for film. Although I didn’t get to see a few that I really wanted to (20th Century Women, Sing Street and Moonlight), here is the best of the bunch that I DID see.

(12) FENCES: A successful Pulitzer winning play is not always easy to translate to the big screen, but Denzel Washington pulled it off. He produced, directed and played the lead in the August Wilson penned Fences. This is just one of 10 plays that Wilson created centered on the struggles of hard working families of 20th century America. Set in the 1950’s, Denzel plays a troubled man, a sanitation worker who gave up his baseball career to support his family. He is now confronted with an almost grown son who wants to play professional football, but the father’s own mental fences around the real world may prevent that. Newcomer Jovan Adeppo plays the son, and is flanked by some of the best actors in the business. His mother is played by the magnificent Viola Davis (who slowly ignites into full rage toward the end of the film), Mykelti Williams is Denzel’s Korean War damaged brother. Russell Hornsby (Grimm) is the couples oldest son,who Dad is NOT proud of, and veteran actor Stephen McKinley Henderson is the Denzel character’s best friend and co-worker. Strong performances, and strong subject matter.

(11) LITTLE MEN: This was a sleeper that came out early in the year, that you may have missed, but critics loved it. Greg Kinnear plays a seldom employed Brooklyn actor, whose wife is a doctor, and pays all the bills to support the family. Although all the adults in the film are excellent, the kids steal the show. Kinnear’s sensitive son has very few friends, but his best friend’s mother is evicted from her 20 year business by Kinnear after he inherits her building, and claims he is forced to double her rent. Friendships, hardships, and modern gentrification of changing neighborhoods are all subplots.The children are really more adult that their parents in this one.

(10) NICE GUYS: I attended an early screening of this zany 1970’s comedy in which both stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling were in attendance, along with director Shane Black. Security was so heavy I thought I was visiting the White House. The plot is somewhat irrelevant, as the pair plow thru 90 minutes of hysterically funny comedy as loosely defined “private detectives.”  The two can’t stand each other, but must unite against the real bad guys Matt Bomer, and Keith David. You will also hear many familiar songs from that era by the Temptations, Ojays and others. Not a big box office hit, but a very funny film nonetheless.

(9) LOVING Released earlier this year, this is a must see. Based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an inter-racial couple who got married in 1958 in the state of Virginia. The couple wants to raise their children in a less biased place, so they relocate to the inner city of Washington D.C. Their trials and tribulations of breaking all the taboos of that era are well documented in this Jeff Nichols film. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga give outstanding performances, as does the dynamic Michael Shannon.

(8) FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS: The very gifted Meryl Streep can portray almost anyone very convincingly, including great singers. This role however was based on a woman who could NOT sing at all, but thought she could. Her character was a very real and wealthy woman and prominent socialite who lived in New York in the early 1900’s. She was described as “the world’s worst opera singer” by historian Stephen Pile. Her live-in companion, an English Nobleman, St Clair Bayfield (played very convincingly by Hugh Grant), may have been her best friend and worst enemy all in one. He could not tell her she had no talent for their entire 35-year relationship, culminating in an appearance at Carnegie Hall. Dry humor, and horrible screeching notes dominate this entertaining film. Streep and Grant are magnificent, but are almost outdone by “The Big Bang Theory’s” Simon Hellberg, whose facial expression alone best describe the plot of Florence Foster Jenkins.

(7) SULLY: Although Tom Hanks did have one film tank this year, this wasn’t it. Based on the true story of a real American hero, this Clint Eastwood directed film was a huge hit at the box office. Based on his book,”Highest Duty,” Chesley Sullenberger is the pilot who saved 155 lives when a flock of birds hits his plane over New York Harbor during takeoff. much of the film centers on the NTSB investigation of what happened that day, but the action is all there too. Laura Linney and Aaron Eckhardt are great in supporting roles.

I will be back with my Top 6 films soon.

One honorable mention (call it # 13 if you want): RULES DON’T APPLY: Warren Beatty doesn’t direct too many films anymore, and he worked on this one off and on for more than 4 decades. Rules is based on all the crazy things Beatty heard about billionaire Howard Hughes from the moment he (Beatty) first arrived in Hollywood back in 1958. All of the quirky, crazy personality traits of Hughes are perfectly captured on film, as Beatty makes the story about two young lovers of the era the prominent plot, with Hughes as a very influential protagonist that is always present. Beatty captures all the classic neon signs, cars, hotels and nightclubs of Old Hollywood as the backdrop. He knows, as he was there.


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