For a good portion of the world, 2016 will go down as a misadventure, if not an outright disaster. But Hollywood is protected from all that real-life calamity. On Nov. 25, North American box-office revenue hit $10-billion (U.S.), the fastest that milestone has been reached to date. It would be cause for global cinephile celebration – if the movies were actually, well, good. (Hello and goodbye, Suicide Squad, Jason Bourne and Kung Fu Panda 3.)
But there is hope. Just as the holiday season brings with it the promise of a better tomorrow, the next few weeks will finally deliver the prestige Hollywood pictures discerning audiences deserve. These 10 films are 2016's unofficial Disruptors – the cinema that aims to rewire how we will view the Year in Film.
Most of the news surrounding Garth Davis's feature debut currently focuses on The Wall Street Journal's cringe-worthy confusion between actors Dev Patel and Kal Penn (the former stars in Lion, while the latter is another performer of Indian heritage). But don't let this speaks-volumes error distract from the fact that Lion is one of the year's most affecting dramas – that rare based-on-a-true-story tear-jerker that doesn't traffic in easy sentimentality. Patel, who sadly hasn't had a role this good since Slumdog Millionaire, stars as Saroo Brierley, a young Australian man wrestling with his splintered identity after being accidentally separated from his Indian family in his youth. Be sure to stock up on Kleenex – or maybe a few used copies of the Journal. (Dec. 9 in Toronto; expands Dec. 21)
Chilean director Pablo Larrain is the busiest man in film. Earlier this year, his dark drama The Club impressed art-house audiences with its unflinching look at the lives of disgraced priests. Next month, his biopic Neruda is set to make a post-festival victory lap, having already earned praise for its depiction of the Nobel Prize-winning poet of the title. And next week, Larrain unveils his true masterpiece: Jackie, a monumental portrait of grief and tragedy that will convert even the most jaded Camelot skeptic. Following the immediate aftermath of JFK's assassination, Larrain's film centres entirely on Jacqueline Kennedy (a brilliant Natalie Portman) as she navigates a post-White House life. Unsettling, sharp and operatic, Jackie is a grand statement, and a fitting cap to its director's remarkable year. (Dec. 9 in Toronto; Dec. 16 in Vancouver; expands Jan. 27)
A space-station adventure starring Chris Pratt doesn't scream "prestige," but put the disparate elements of Passengers together and a more promising picture starts to form. For starters, the film comes courtesy of Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, who's displayed an apititude for both perfectly cut Oscar bait (The Imitation Game) and more transgressive genre outings (Headhunters). Then there's the fact that it co-stars Academy favourite Jennifer Lawrence, who, when not bound by her X-Men obligations, picks her projects carefully. Though it's being pitched as a sci-fi blockbuster, Passengers is also a project unfamiliar to the genre these days: a completely original concept, one not tied to novels or comic books or video games. That alone earns it a pass. (Dec. 21)
It is always a tricky business adapting a play for the screen. Filmmakers find themselves having to invent superfluous action, chop up dialogue, and reconfigure narratives, all in the hopes that their movie won't appear "stagey." Denzel Washington has no such problem with his adaptation of August Wilson's Fences, the actor's third time in the director's chair – although perhaps that's because Washington has unparalleled support in star Viola Davis. The actress plays one half of a couple (Washington is the other) struggling to hold their family together in 1950s Pittsburgh, against a backdrop of slowly evolving race relations and bitterly held grudges. It is tempting to over-analyze every one of Washington's directorial choices, but any such efforts fall by the wayside once Davis appears on screen – her raw, engaged performance dominates the film. Just give her the Oscar now, Academy. (Dec. 25)
Hidden Figures has a history so good that if it wasn't true, Hollywood would have had to invent it. Following the real-life team of African-American women who provided NASA with the critical mathematical data needed for the space program, Theodore Melfi's film promises to be both a crowd-pleaser and, perhaps, just the kind of diversity-forward film that the Academy can no longer afford to ignore. Whatever its awards outcomes, though, it is hard to dismiss both Hidden Figures' background and its powerhouse cast (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and recent Moonlight co-stars Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali). (Dec. 25 in Toronto; expands Jan. 6)
La La Land
In the middle of Damien Chazelle's follow-up to Whiplash, a character berates Ryan Gosling's jazz purist for refusing to bend to the times. "All your jazz heroes, they were revolutionaries, but how do you expect to keep jazz alive if you're a traditionalist?" Over the next few months, expect Chazelle to be praised as the man who brought the big-time movie musical back from the dead – but he's not as stuck in the past as La La Land's hero. Instead, the writer-director borrows liberally from Old Hollywood (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen), French New Wave (Jacques Demy), Alfred Hitchcock, Alan Parker, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Michael Mann and even a sprinkling of Nicolas Winding Refn to create something entirely new and intoxicating. Chronicling the up-and-down romance between a jazz pianist (Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Emma Stone, a lock for a best-actress nomination), the film is a love letter to film and to love itself. Set aside some time on your holiday calendar – you'll want to see this twice, at least. (Dec. 25)
"I don't know if there's redemption, but there is such a thing as trying to get it right," Martin Scorsese told The New York Times Magazine recently, describing his decades-long quest to bring Silence to the screen. No doubt that the filmmaker tried to "get it right" every which way over the past 28 years, from the time he was given a copy of Shusaku Endo's historical novel straight through the point where he finally locked the picture in the editing bay – a moment that, at least until a few weeks ago, seemed like a far-off dream for Scorsese acolytes. Telling the story of Jesuit missionaries sent to 17th-century Japan, Silence can be viewed as the end game for Scorsese's varied cinematic obsessions: faith, violence, and, hopefully, the redemption the director has long been seeking. (Dec. 23 in New York and L.A.; Jan. 6 in Canada)
20th Century Women
Six years is a long time to go between Mike Mills films, but the director behind the charmingly oddball Beginners is finally returning with 20th Century Women, an original story focused on a scrappy family in Santa Barbara, 1979. That log line might not lend itself to headlines, but consider the knockout female-led cast: Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Alia Shawkat, and Annette Bening, the latter of whom is generating enough Oscar talk to (rightfully) eclipse any mention of husband Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply. (Dec. 25 in New York and L.A.; Jan. 6 in Canada)
Peter Berg: Oscar nominee? Don't laugh (seriously, quit it), as the director's drama about the Boston Marathon bombing is already earning comparisons with the work of Academy favourite Paul Greengrass. Working once again with his Deepwater Horizon star Mark Wahlberg, Berg's second film of 2016 is being positioned as a taut, wiry investigation into the aftermath of the 2013 attack – and, most importantly, one that doesn't dip into cheesy "Go America!" ideology. (Dec. 21 in New York and L.A.; Jan. 13 in Canada)
The McConaissance is dead. Long live the McConaissance! Yes, Matthew McConaughey is being primed for (another) comeback in Gold after this year's disappointing double-punch of Free State of Jones and The Sea of Trees. (Don't recall the latter? That's because it earned a grand total of $20,444 in its whisper-quiet U.S. release this summer.) But the star's new drama checks off all the boxes of a career-redeeming project: It's based on a true story (the Bre-X mining scandal); is helmed by a prestigious director (Syriana's Stephen Gaghan); and allows its star to look ugly for the sake of art (McConaughey goes bald and packs on the pounds as a shady businessman). All right, all right, all right. (Dec. 25 in New York and L.A.; Jan. 27 in Canada).
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Okay, this is a cheat, as Rogue One is not exactly the kind of franchise-free, mature-audience entertainment that has been absent from theatres this year. But it is the most anticipated film of the season, and, thanks to its diverse cast (Diego Luna! Riz Ahmed! Donnie Yen!), intriguing concept (finally, we're out of the franchise's "episodes" and into fresh-ish territory), and proven director (Godzilla's Gareth Edwards), Rogue One just might break the blockbuster mould. (Dec. 16)