Drama is the prestige genre of movies – to the point that we refer to all non-dramas as “genre films.” The “best” movies are dramas, so goes the prevailing wisdom, and while that’s too much of a blanket statement to be truthful, the majority are. They typically provide the best characters and stories, and those are two of the main reasons we watch movies – so it only makes sense they’re seen as the best.
Here are the top 10 dramas from 2016.
American Honey follows the troubled youth of America who can do nothing better in order to get by than travel from neighborhood to neighborhood selling magazine subscriptions – which may or may not be a scam. With its epic length, it will be too long of a journey for some, but those who decide to check it out will see a complex character study with fantastic acting from newcomer Sasha Lane and veterans Shia LaBeouf (yes, really) and Riley Keough. It’s a compelling tale, and its only real minor issue is that aforementioned length. Chop off 20-30 minutes and you have something that’s pretty much perfect.
Denzel Washington adapted a play called Fences that was written in the 1980s but is about the ’50s. He also stars in the film, which sees him play a former baseball player who now works in the sanitation field. His family gets by, but they’re nothing special. The film details how their lives function and the conflicts they go through – in particular, the ones between Washington’s character and his son. It’s heartbreaking stuff.
The little-seen Indignation is one of my favorite films of 2016 – a spitfire of a tale following a Jewish student attending a Christian college, and the struggles that come with that – particularly in his fights with the Dean, who questions everything he does (for one reason or another). There’s one 15-minute confrontation between the two that’s so passionate and so sharply written that it gives you a feeling of elation after it ends. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
The film also contains a decent romance between its protagonist and another student, as well as the struggles that brings for him with his family, who decide early on that they don’t like his belle.
In 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Jackie details what happened to Jackie Kennedy after the murder. It’s framed primarily as flashbacks, as Jackie grants a rare interview. Natalie Portman plays the lead, and she’s as good as ever – even rivaling her Black Swan performance. She makes the film work, really; without a strong lead actor, it would risk getting boring. And special shout out to the cinematography and score, which help elevate Jackie even further up the totem pole.
La La Land
Hollywood loves Hollywood, so 2016’s entry into the “Hollywood loves Hollywood” category of movies is La La Land, a musical about a jazz pianist and an actress, both in Los Angeles, who meet and fall in love. Also, they have dreams, and they try to pursue those dreams. So deep.
I kid, mostly because of the hype the film received and the amount of love it has in the community. It’s a very good movie with some absolutely stunning segments – it opens to a musical in a traffic jam whose scale and precision is incredible – and characters who are good enough to mostly carry the film. It’s very good. Damien Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash, is better, but it’s very good.
Manchester By the Sea
For a very lengthy period of time, Manchester By the Sea was my #1 film of 2016. It’s dropped slightly, but it’s still a top 3 film and one that I love. It follows a man and his nephew after the death of their brother/father, and works as a strong meditation on grief and of guilt – although don’t get me wrong, they didn’t cause that death. You’ll see when you see it. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges are fantastic, and the whole film seems tailor-made to generate a strong emotional response from its audience.
While we’ll always remember Moonlight as the film that won the Oscar after something else was initially announced, those who saw it before that kerfuffle will remember it for the movie it is, which is a great one. It follows a black man through three periods of his life (child, teenager, twentysomething adult). And he’s gay – although he doesn’t initially know it.
The film details the challenges he suffers, not just because of his sexuality – although that’s definitely a part of it, especially in poorer black communities – but just the general problems he has to overcome in a poor black neighborhood. It’s a great film with wonderful acting and a touching plot.
It’s surprising that Adam Driver didn’t receive more mainstream love for his performance in Paterson. He plays a poet who works as a bus driver … and that’s really it. It follows him for one week, detailing the important events and reciting the poems he writes during that time. It doesn’t have ambitions beyond that, but it’s a great drama with interesting characters, a quiet, understated beauty, and an amazing lead performance.
You may not know the name Asghar Farhadi, but you probably should. He’s quietly established himself as one of the top international directors working, and as several straight successes under his belt. The Salesman is the one from 2016, which is about a married couple who perform Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – and then the wife is assaulted.
The film follows the two characters afterward. The husband wants revenge, and tries to suss out the attacker’s identity. Meanwhile, his wife struggles with the PTSD, as well as the societal and physical impacts of the assault. It’s a gripping tale that has great acting.
Whenever Martin Scorsese makes a movie, it’s almost your duty as a movie-lover to pay attention. Silence sees Scorsese follow two 17th-century monks as they travel to Japan in order to (1) find their mentor, who has gone missing and may have renounced his faith and (2) spread their religion to the people there. Once arriving, they learn that it isn’t as simple as they suspected, and have both their physical limits and spiritual ones tested over a marathon running time.
It’s a very solid movie but, like the first entry on this list, suffers a bit from its length. Most movies don’t need to be over two hours, and while this one isn’t too bad with its time, lose 20 minutes and it’s better. Its acting is tremendous, it’s stunningly beautiful, and its story is engaging. Just not quite two hours and 40 minutes engaging.