By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
This summer, after the major flops Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Gods of Egypt, Suicide Squad and others had laid giant eggs, the word was that 2016 was an abysmal year at the movies.
I've struggled for weeks in hashing out this list, eventually deciding to spilt it in two to better showcase the variety of films that screened here and the even-greater selection of films available digitally.
Up first are those that screened (sometimes briefly) in Amarillo theaters; Part 2 features those that didn't screen here (or many cities, to be honest). Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6 continues to devote one screen to indie releases between September and May, and United Artists Amarillo Star 14 brought in several smaller films over the past year in addition to the blockbusters and blockbuster-wannabes. I'm hopeful that, with the end of its massive renovations in sight, Cinemark Hollywood 16 will return to screening these smaller movies, as well.
So without further ado, my Top 10 films seen in Amarillo:
1. Manchester by the Sea: Much has been made of the utter, desolate sadness of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s latest — and believe me, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. But what makes it one of the best films of the year (outside of the searing performances by Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges and the rest) is its masterful use of humor — not just to make it watchable, but to give it such bursting humanity.
2. Arrival: Is there a better reactor in film than Amy Adams? Her quiet, resonant work in Arrival makes a strong case in her favor. Because of the twists and turns of the story, Adams must be both emotionally transparent and opaque in this spectacular, haunting sci-fi drama about the sudden appearance of alien creatures in our skies. Director Denis Villenueve’s previous films Prisoners and Sicario have left me somewhat cold, but this one positively stunned me.
3. Hell or High Water: What has stuck with me about this neo-Western is how, under the sunny, endless skies of West Texas, almost everyone is colored in shades of gray. Though we’re following cops and robbers around the Llano Estacado, virtually no one wears solid hats of white or black. Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan — working with a stellar cast that includes Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges — transcend genre to craft a truly iconic American tale.
4. Hail, Caesar!: The Coen Brothers’ latest didn’t make much of a splash when it opened in February, but the painstaking and affectionate re-creation of Hollywood’s Golden Age has the feel of a future cult classic. That’s in no small part due to fall-down-funny scenes like the already immortal “Would that it were so simple” scene. Watch above and enjoy.
5. The Edge of Seventeen: Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s ferociously sharp teen comedy, and its captivating lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld, reminds us what it’s like to be a teenager and, as entertaining as the film is, makes an adult glad that those days are far behind. Angst is rarely as good as it is here.
6. Don't Think Twice: An improv comedy troupe struggles when one of its own gets called up to the big time in this insightful dramedy written and directed by co-star Mike Birbiglia. Though packed with humor, the biting observations about the psychology of creative minds are truthful and affectionately stern.
7. Midnight Special: Director Jeff Nichols had a spectacular year (his Loving makes Part 2 of this list, no worries), and so did fans of intelligent sci-fi films between Arrival and this chase film. Michael Shannon, who stars in all of Nichols’ films, is a concerned father taking his young son (Jaeden Lieberher) on the run, escaping from an apocalyptic cult led by Sam Shepard. But, bizarrely, the son avoids the sun, wears goggles and listens to voices from far away whose origins are more celestial than heavenly. The finale is a bit too literal, but the ride there is out of this world.
8. Sausage Party: Had they not already collaborated on This Is the End, the idea that a filthy cartoon movie written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan could address the loss of faith in an accessible but surprisingly intelligent manner might be, well, heresy. But even with talking lesbian tacos, hot dogs and buns, a giant food orgy, and a couple of too-easy jokes, Sausage Party is far, far smarter than you’d think at first glance.
9. Zootopia: On the opposite end of the spectrum is this Disney film — though it has more adult themes in mind than you’d think of a film featuring a bunch of cute, big-eyed animals. Beyond its gorgeous animation, the film is packed with intelligent thoughts on inclusivity and political corruption — one wishes its lessons were better heeded.
10. Fences: Denzel Washington transferred almost the entire cast of the Tony Award-winning 2010 revival of this iconic August Wilson play, using a screenplay written by Wilson before his death. The critique, then, that the film is too “stagey” isn’t without merit, but if it means we get a front-row seat to powerhouse performances by Washington as an embittered man tired of being told he was born too soon and Oscar favorite Viola Davis as his supportive but fed-up wife, then that’s a price worth paying.
Honorable mention: Pete's Dragon, a heartfelt and intelligent remake of a so-so Disney original (that I, nonetheless, still love because I saw it so young); Moana, with its fierce heroine and eye-popping animation, it seals the deal on the Disney resurgence; Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a sweetly funny and nicely tart New Zealand comedy; Captain Fantastic, a thought-provoking family drama that still lingers; Hello, My Name Is Doris, a surprisingly open-hearted comedy featuring a killer turn by Sally Field; Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford's gorgeous, messy, mesmerizing sophomore film; Queen of Katwe, a delightful biopic about an African teen who improbably becomes a chess champion; and 10 Cloverfield Lane, a shockingly tense horror film featuring an award-worthy performance by John Goodman.