We've saved the best for last and, like other Christmas traditions that come in threes—wise men, French hens and Christmas Carol ghosts—this holiday season brings a trio of films that offer an embarrassment of riches: Something for the kids, something to make your heart sing and your toes tap, and an amazing performance from Natalie Portman.
I can pinpoint the exact time and place when I knew, hands-down, I was watching what would be the best film of 2016. At precisely 12:10 p.m. on Sept. 12 , I scratched the following in my notebook: "This is the one. This one's the best." It was at that moment, 10 minutes into the North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, that the audience openly cheered and applauded La La Land. Over the next two hours, the audience would continue to interrupt the film on at least six more occasions with ovations and, when the lights came up, a stodgy group of harsh film critics and Hollywood executives were practically dancing to the exits.
"La La Land is a new kind of musical. You bet," La La leading man Ryan Gosling told Boise Weekly the morning after news of the wildly successful premiere lit up Twitter. "But if you think of it, La La Land is really just about two people and their relationship. Even if you don't like musicals, you end up caring about this story because it's so emotionally engaging."
True, but if you do like musicals, you'll fall head head over heels in love with this film. With all due respect to Gosling, "emotionally engaging" romantic comedies and dramas are a dime-a-dozen, but La La Land is one-in-a-million. It's fresh, dazzling and groundbreaking, and Gosling and his dance partner, Emma Stone, are all kinds of terrific. This one should be a Best Picture Oscar winner.
Another musical—with the appropriate title Sing!—also caught me by surprise at this year's TIFF. This gorgeous, animated song-fest, features Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly and Tori Kelly as a koala, pig, mouse, porcupine, sheep and elephant, respectively—all of which have great singing voices.
"I need to forewarn you that the film is still a work-in-progress," a representative from Universal Pictures whispered to me a few minutes before the sneak-preview screening at TIFF. "Please be kind. Don't review it yet. Rest assured, it will be pristine and ready to go when it's Christmas."
With that, I was prepared to see a rough-cut film with sloppy voice-dubbing or scenes that would end up on the editing room floor, but what followed was a hilarious, 100-minute sing-along. I've seen Sing! since its final edit, and not one second was changed.
It's a family friendly bonanza that will give Star Wars a run for its box office bucks over the extended holiday season.
Finally, our year-end wrap-up includes something for the grown-ups: Jackie the much-anticipated biopic of the most famous woman we never knew.
Natalie Portman's resume is filled with impressive portrayals, including Anne Frank, a space princess, a young assassin, a stripper and Oscar-winning turn as a "black swan." She can add another inspired performance to the list: former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, a role in which Portman explores the vulnerability of America's queen of Camelot, under the keen eye of Chilean director Pablo Larrain.
Jackie is framed by the story of a real-life interview with a Life magazine journalist—played by Billy Crudup—days after JFK's assassination. The once-secretive notes from that interview were only revealed after Jackie's death in May 1994.
Early in the film, we see Portman as Jackie, dressed in the iconic pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, traveling with her husband, the president, to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Fewer than 24 hours later, she's wearing the same pink suit but now, it's covered with her husband's blood. After returning to Washington, D.C. with JFK's corpse, she walks the halls of a near-empty White House.
"You should take the children and disappear," an adviser tells Jackie. "Build a fortress and never look back."
History tells us Jackie built such an emotional fortress, but not until she first helped curate her husband's public memorial in an historic funeral.
We think we know the first lady's story, but Jackie fills in so many once-mysterious gaps in the Kennedy legend. In Larrain's capable hands, the subtleties of Portman's performance give us a Jackie we never imagined and a film masterwork.