Our critic's choice: The best movies of 2016

2016 was not a good year for a variety of reasons, only one of which will be addressed here. After a stellar 2015, the movies of 2016 failed to impress as a whole, with the late-arriving Oscar contenders raising the caliber of the movie year to a degree, but not enough to entirely compensate for the prior months.

The Top 10 is usually listed 1 through 10, but this year the films will be in alphabetical order. The best movies of 2016 were like a pitching rotation that includes capable second and third starters but no ace, which 2015 had in the extraordinary "Spotlight" along with other candidates. With a group of films worthy of fifth and sixth place, we'll skip the traditional ranking system.

Locally, the quality and popularity of the two deeply-rooted film festivals was further demonstrated in 2016. The Berkshire International Film Festival in Great Barrington and Pittsfield marked its 11th season and across the border, the Chatham, N.Y.-based FilmColumbia Festival celebrated its 17th season. Both festivals enable local movie buffs to see high profile films before they go out on general release, as well as quality movies, such as documentaries, that may not make it into area movie theaters otherwise. Beyond the films they show, the caliber of those who serve on BIFF and FilmColumbia boards and panels or speak to audiences of movie fans is a reminder of the wide variety of talented movie industry people who are tucked away in the hills of Berkshire County and the neighboring communities of New York State and Connecticut.

Here is a contribution to the many movie lists that are arriving as 2016 passes unmourned into history.

ARRIVAL: A thoughtful, deliberately paced film about visitors from outer space that avoids most of the usual cliches of the science fiction genre. Amy Adams' anguished linquistic expert humanizes the film, which ultimately trips over its plot logic.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR: No special effects-laden superhero movie, or science-fiction movie for that matter, is any better than its story and the characters driving that story. For all of its ambitious action sequences, "Captain America" succeeds because audiences invested in the Marvel superheroes brought to the big screen in recent years care about their fates as the government comes down on them. Chris Evans' Captain America and Robert Downey's Iron Man are team captains in a sense as the superheroes divide into camps in reaction to this threat.

DON'T THINK TWICE: An hilarious and poignant film about the travails of a family-like improvisational comedy troupe in Manhattan that unravels when one of its members is signed by the fictional equivalent of "Saturday Night Live." Written and directed by standup comedian Mike Birbiglia, who also co-stars, the movie didn't get the screen time it deserved but is now available on a variety of platforms.

HELL OR HIGH WATER: Chris Pine and Ben Foster are brothers in West Texas who rob banks to save the family farm from foreclosure, and what could be a formulaic tale gains resonance as the brothers confront an economic system that has stacked the deck against those who once formed the nation's backbone. Lawmen Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham pursue the brothers as audiences are torn about which pair to root for and which to root against when conventional definitions of good guys and bad guys no longer apply.

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE: A kindred spirit to "Hell or High Water," Sam Neill's cranky backwoods New Zealander heads for the bush country with Julian Dennison's foster child when adoption agency bureaucrats come around following the sudden death of Neill's wife. Funny and moving without sliding into sentiment. Writer-director-actor Taika Waititi (2014 top 10 finisher "What We Do In The Shadows") is moving out of the independent ranks to direct the 2017 "Thor" sequel from the Marvel stable of blockbusters.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: A lapse in judgment cost Casey Affleck's Lee Chandler everything, right down to the fiber of his being, and he struggles to meet unwanted responsibilities in Kenneth Lonergan's sad, compassionate and at times darkly funny drama. Affleck, Lucas Hedges as Lee's rebellious nephew and Michelle Williams as Lee's wife are all outstanding.

ROGUE ONE: A 'STAR WARS' STORY: While the lack of chemistry between the two leads takes some of the edge off the film, "Rogue One" is a thing of beauty that leads into the original "Star Wars" film with a dark and fascinating tale artfully explaining what has been perceived as a flaw in the 1977 classic. Presciently, "Rogue One' also segues nicely into the mission of Princess Leia. Rest in Peace, Carrie Fisher.

SWISS ARMY MAN: A genuine original, Daniel Radcliffe plays a corpse that washes up on an island inhabited only by a lonely man (Paul Dano). What follows is a surreal adventure tale as the new buddies try to find their way back to civilization. Radcliffe proves to be an extraordinary physical comedian.

THE FREE STATE OF JONES: Lost amid the noisy summer blockbusters, the film, which is based on a true story, stars an impressive Matthew McConaughey as a Confederate deserter, disillusioned with war and the Confederacy, who returns to Mississippi to lead a rebellion of slaves, women and poor farmers. Unlike other slavery-related epics featuring a white savior, "The Free State of Jones" gives African-Americans their due, largely through the performances of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali.

THE GREEN ROOM: A struggling punk-rock band takes a gig at a backwoods skinhead bar and must fight for its survival after witnessing a murder. The movie both embraces and upends all the cliches of the revenge movie genre. Patrick Stewart is wonderful against type as the leader of the neo-Nazis and Anton Yelchin, killed in an accident this year, shines as the band's leader in what is tragically his last major film role.


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