Between Disney’s two films last year, I ever so slightly prefer Moana (2016) to Zootopia, perhaps because it feels like more of a traditional “Disney experience.” It comes from co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, whose credits include The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), Treasure Planet (2002), and The Princess and the Frog (2009)—not a bad list. This is their first fully computer-generated movie, and it’s like an ocean breeze, big and bold, but also gentle and lovely. It tells the story of a Polynesian princess (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) who must locate the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and get him to undo a terrible wrong he once did, or her island will perish.
Moana is an interesting new Disney Princess, not a white girl, and not terribly interested in finding a prince; the movie doesn’t even have one. Mainly, Moana is dazzling, exciting, and very funny, with a not-terribly-smart chicken voiced by Alan Tudyk getting most of the laughs, but Johnson getting his fair share as well; his great song “You’re Welcome” is a keeper. (Who knew The Rock could sing?) Jemaine Clement, as a giant, treasure-encrusted crab, sings another good one called “Shiny.” The only song to be nominated, however, is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspirational, chest-thumping “How Far I’ll Go.” The movie itself is also nominated for Best Animated Feature.
Moonlight (Rental coming to Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.—Feb. 21)*
Though of course La La Land is the front-runner for the majority of the Academy Awards, and it’s as good an escape from scary times as any musical that has ever come along, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016) is the better film. It’s a great, masterful work that manages to generate understanding and empathy for a character that many mainstream viewers have never encountered, nor even considered. He is Chiron—played by three different actors at three different ages—a shy, thin, introverted boy growing up in the mean part of Florida, and very likely gay. We understand without being told that coming out, talking to anyone, or making any kind of connection, is absolutely deadly. (He already has trouble with an aggressive, dreadlocked bully.) His life changes when he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer that somehow radiates calm, intelligence, and kindness.
Juan gives him a place to go when he needs an escape, which he does frequently given that his mother (Naomie Harris) is an unstable, angry junkie. As Chiron grows, he models himself after Juan, attempting his own brand of swagger, though he can’t forget the one moment of connection he ever had, with a school friend named Kevin. The delicate, watchful cinematography captures different sensations of light and air, with different qualities of cluttered and uncluttered exteriors and interiors, reflecting the characters. It’s a deeply perceptive, quietly textured movie; I’ve seen it twice, and I love it. André Holland (of TV’s The Knick) plays Kevin as an adult and Janelle Monáe (Hidden Figures) plays Juan’s nurturing girlfriend. It has eight nominations in all, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (by Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney), Ali and Harris for their supporting performances, James Laxton’s cinematography, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders’s editing, and the beautiful score by Nicholas Britell.
O.J.: Made in America (Hulu)
Both film and television critics have named this one of the best of 2016, sparking a debate among them: Is it a film or is it a TV show? Does it have to be just one? Either way, it’s a monumental work, one for the ages, managing to take a soul-sucking tabloid story and turn it into the story of America itself. Working with almost unlimited access, director Ezra Edelman uses archive footage, audio recordings, photos, and documents, as well as new interviews, to step back and view the “trial of the century,” wherein every ludicrous, awful detail was aired all over the news, and freshly unpack it as a microcosm of our country.
Taken in context with the Rodney King beating, the release of the white officers involved, and the subsequent riots, the O.J. Simpson trial was a loaded prospect; here was a remarkable athlete who managed to transcend color barriers—by not identifying as a “black man”—at the center of a trial that eventually became about race. With incredible patience and intelligence, Edelman outlines precisely how Simpson’s fame and the subject of race influenced, and were influenced by, absolutely everything at the time, and even now. Major players Marcia Clark and Mark Fuhrman are interviewed, as well as two of the original jurors, author Walter Mosley, and film director Peter Hyams.
Ava Duvernay last brought us Selma (2014), an unexpectedly brilliant biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1965 march in Alabama to call attention to voting rights. In a controversial Oscar season, her film won an Oscar for Best Song, and received a nomination for Best Picture, and nothing else. Now Duvernay takes off the gloves and offers 13th (2016), a shattering, essential new film, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. While the end of slavery and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement were great moments in American history, Duvernay’s film argues that they are connected by a long string of whites in power, cultivating a fear of black people and using that fear to acquire not only more power, but wealth.
Named after the 13th Amendment of the constitution, the movie argues that since slavery was a financial situation, the United States needed a way to regain those lost profits, and the wording of the amendment itself—“except as a punishment for crime”—provided the answer. In order to make money from a prison system, fear of African-Americans had to be created and spread. The film makes strong connections between many events of history, beginning with the amendment in 1865, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, activities of most of the U.S. Presidents, the “War on Drugs,” and up to today. (Eugene Jarecki’s excellent doc The House I Live In covered this territory, too, but Duvernay takes it much further.) Many scholars, a few politicians, and Angela Davis herself are interviewed, and the presentation is thorough, calm, logical, and devastating. It’s an absolute must-see.
Nominated for Best Animated Feature, the 55th feature-length animated Disney film has all of the good stuff you’d come to expect from an animated Disney film. It has cute characters, dazzling colors, laughs, chases, a catchy song (Shakira’s “Try Everything”), and moments of sweetness. But it’s also perhaps the canniest exploration of bigotry to emerge from Hollywood in the last several years, woven expertly and subtly into the narrative so as not to feel too preachy. By transposing biases from skin color to animal species, Zootopia (2016) calls out the irrational fear behind it all. In the story, farm girl bunny Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) dreams of joining the police in the big city of Zootopia, where animals live together in peace and dreams can come true.
There, she meets a shady con artist, fox Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman). The pair form an alliance on a case involving “predators” mysteriously going savage and attacking “prey.” This situation exacerbates the already-existing fear that’s prevalent, even though they share a city together. Even Judy finds that she’s unable to see past Nick’s potential predator status. The filmmakers weave all this into the beautiful storyline, where reconsidering and understanding are key. Oh, and don’t miss the scene at the DMV, where the desk is manned by slow-moving sloths. Idris Elba voices the police chief, and J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, and Alan Tudyk provide other memorable voices. (And Kristen Bell has a cameo as a sloth.)
*Dates and details are subject to change
Deepwater Horizon (rent on Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
Doctor Strange (coming Feb. 14)
Florence Foster Jenkins (rental on Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
Jackie (coming March 7—date subject to change)
The Jungle Book (Netflix)
Manchester by the Sea (coming Feb. 21—date subject to change)
A Man Called Ove (rent on Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
Nocturnal Animals (coming Feb. 21)
Star Trek Beyond (rent on Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
Suicide Squad (rent on Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
Sully (rent on Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes)
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Amazon Prime/Hulu)
Trolls (coming for rental Feb. 7)
Not Available Yet
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (coming sometime in March?)
Fire at Sea
Hail, Caesar! (no rental yet—only purchase)
I Am Not Your Negro
Jim: The James Foley Story (song)
La La Land
Land of Mine (foreign)
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The Salesman (foreign)
Toni Erdmann (foreign)
20th Century Women