Best Films of 2016
My last list in the best of the year lists is always the movies, because the end of the year is always loaded with films getting their debuts in last minute in order to qualify for varying awards runs. That being said, there are quite a few films that I either missed their run in my town or they have yet to make it here. Some of these films include: Toni Erdmann, Paterson, Silence, 20th Century Women, The Handmaiden, Certain Women, Elle, Camera Person, Things to Come. I plan on updating this list as I see these films, so expect it to be fluid (and keep checking it out because you’ll never know if there’ll be a new number 1!).
One other note I wanted to make before beginning this list was to acknowledge the lack of diversity amongst the stars and directors in my top 15. Last year’s #Oscarssowhite controversy certainly didn’t seem to really affect the hype train among critics, whose opinions I usually try to keep up with. Only Pablo Larrain (from Chile) and Hirokazu Koreeda (of Japan) are non-white males in my top 10. Some of you may roll your eyes at my acknowledgement of this and others of you may care, but I think it’s important to watch films by people who are not white males and I will try to be more cognizant of this moving forward. My 16 through 22 picks are all about or directed by people outside this realm, but just couldn’t crack into the movies that impacted me most (an arbitrary process, I know, but I try to rank them according to what I felt was the best combination of skill and personal impact). Movies are meant to transport you into someone else’s experience and it’s so important to make that experience be told by someone outside of the the small viewpoint it is so often told from. Here’s to more films by people of color and women going into 2017.
25. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
21. The Club
18. American Honey
17. The Fits
15. Embrace of the Serpent
14. Love & Friendship
Whit Stilman takes his dialogue-heavy wit to the Victorian era in what is a pretty straightforward period adaptation of a Jane Austen short story. It’s one of the most cleverly written scripts of the year, using the complex social dynamics of the time to craft what almost becomes a sort of screwball comedy. Kate Beckinsale gives one of the best performances of the year as a manipulative socialite making her way through the world. If you can keep up with it’s sharp dialogue you’re bound to enjoy it.
13. Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite working directors and his first feature of 2016 (he also made the respectable civil rights tale Loving) was a sci-fi thriller that doubled down on Nichols’ consistent exploration of family and manhood. The film follows a father (Michael Shannon) as he tries to protect his son from both the government and a cult of religious obsessives as they try to figure out the strange powers his son has. The central mystery of this boy’s purpose is intriguing, the chase aspects are thrilling, but ultimately the film is most interesting in what it means to be a family with Nichols’ putting his characters in unique situations to examine this question (as he also did brilliantly in Take Shelter).
12. Everybody Wants Some!!
Everybody Wants Some!!, on its face, seems like an effort to try to recapture the magic of Dazed and Confused, but in reality it’s so good that there’s no way anyone can accuse Linklater of trying to capitalize off of old successes. It takes place in the 80s, following a group of baseball players in their first few days before college begins. Linklater is a master of having his characters sit around a discuss ideas, allowing for dumb jocks to be the smartest people in the room, and capturing in totality the excitement and uncertainty of youth. No other director is better at making you feel like you’re sitting around chilling with your pals.
11. Hell or High Water
This is essentially ‘Texas: The Movie’ and perhaps the most representative story of what is now Donald Trump’s America. It follows two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they try to save their family’s ranch by stealing from the bank that’s about to foreclose on them. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham star as two cops trying to catch the brothers, their tenuous but loving relationship guiding them along. The film follows both sets until its final culmination of complicated and unfortunate violence. Director David Mackenzie captures a certain American spirit, one of disparaged people caught in a bad place and desperate for a wave of goodwill to move through their lives. It’s a distortion of the American dream, one filled with plenty of laughs, and that will leave you dumbfounded as to how we got here and where we go next.
10. 10 Cloverfield Lane
This prequel to Cloverfield was shrouded in mystery, with little known about its plot or that it was even coming out. The team behind this film were satisfied to take a fairly successful existing property and create something within its world without really caring about the world of the existing property. The known entity of there being some sort of monster attack brilliantly exists in the background while Dan Trachtenberg chooses to heighten tension within the house where Mary Elizabeth Winstead finds herself. It’s more psychological thriller than monster movie and Winstead (and the viewer) have no idea whether to be terrified or thankful for John Goodman’s presence (he’s terrifying, and great). It was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me and it pays off brilliantly.
9. Our Little Sister
Hirokazu Koreeda is one of my favorite working filmmakers, he crafts small scale family stories where tensions run low, but spirits often run high. This isn’t to say his characters don’t go through a lot, they certainly face situations with high stakes, but the viewer never feels like these characters won’t be anything other than alright. Our Little Sister is about three sisters whose father, who had abandoned them years earlier for another woman, passes away. At the funeral they learn of their step-sister and eventually decide to take her in. The film then fairly simply follows the four of them as they reside together, experiencing those pieces of life that are most important–small disappointing and joyful moments that when placed together make up one’s being. It’s beautiful, like a cup of green tea warming you from the inside out.
8. Manchester By the Sea
Early on Manchester By the Sea decides it’s going to wreck you, with Casey Affleck’s brother dying and the introduction of Affleck’s nephew who he is now in charge of. From there Kenneth Lonergan puts you through heart break after heart break as the circumstances of Affleck’s morose Lee Chandler are slowly revealed. This would all be utterly devastating (and it still is) if Lonergan didn’t make the film equally as funny as it is depressing. Lee’s relationship with his nephew Chandler is often ostentatious–they are two depressed people trying to get by, neither afraid to say how they feel–leading to often vicious and brutal snipes that actually help to relieve the tension quite well. The ubiquitous phrase all the feelings has never felt more appropriate than it has here, for good reason, Manchester will likely exist in our collective vernacular for quite a while.
7. The Nice Guys
This is the funniest movie that came out this year, even if on its face it’s not a straightforward comedy. The Nice Guys follows Ryan Gosling’s private detective Holland and Russell Crowe’s fixer, Jackson, as circumstances force them to come together. Shane Black is able to pull off perfectly constructed slapstick as the two bumble their way throughout Los Angeles trying to find a missing girl. Gosling is surprisingly a comedic genius here. Ultimately, and similar to Inherent Vice, the movie is about decency, the idea that goodness exists in the world even if it is found in the seedy places one wouldn’t expect. The world is a corrupt place, but somewhere out there is an awful detective who really just wants to make things good for people.
6. Sing Street
Sing Street is a frontrunner for the movie I’m most likely to put on during a Sunday evening when I just want to be comforted. It’s a John Hughes-esque teen comedy directed by the guy who gave us Once and featuring some outstanding original music. Cosmos is a teenager in Ireland, he’s just been forced to change schools, his parent’s marriage is falling apart, and he’s reached that age where his identity is beginning to be discovered. And then he sees a girl and decides to commit everything to impressing this girl. Following his brother’s advice he starts a band, inviting the girl to star in his music video, and through the new wave bands he sees on MTV, his interactions with this girl, and his keen ability to actually write songs, he begins to reach self-discovery. It’s fun, sentimental, and is actually able to capture all the excitement and importance of music–particularly to the lost teenager.
“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is a lyric and the main theme in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. This is the quote that most profoundly ran throughout my head while watching Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, his English-language debut, which follows Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s death. It’s a tale of personal tragedy, Jackie is dealing with the loss of her husband, the father of her children. But it’s so much more than this, she must deal with the legacy of who her husband is, not only her personal and complicated relationship with him, but how the entire country will view him for years to come. Larrain portrays all of this with a meandering camera, his grainy cinematography is probably more beautiful than anything else I saw on the big screen this year. The personal and the national intertwine in an absolutely devastating tale of loss.
4. La La Land
From its opening moments, featuring a Los Angeles traffic standstill that quickly turns into a stage for a giant musical number, I was hooked by La La Land. It’s simultaneously a throwback to Hollywood musicals, while also capturing a modern feel. That opening number, which makes a celebration out of the most tumultuous parts of Hollywood–the never-ending traffic and sunshine that won’t go away–captures the dreamlike notion of the movies. And boy does it do so, vibrant colors splash off the screen, characters are always exquisitely dressed, and perhaps most importantly it stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who will charm the socks off of you. Damien Chazelle lets us believe in the unbelievable bliss of romance. Yet, things can never be all good and Chazelle brings us back to reality. As the characters dreams come true, their romance slowly dissipates, but, lest we forget all the magic that preceded it, we get treated to one final glorious sequence that utterly nails everything that could have been, all the dreams that we experience and the magic that lies therein, whether or not they come true.
3. Hail, Caesar
Hail, Caesar is a tribute film to films and this, while on its face is fairly annoying, is pulled off brilliantly here. The Coen brothers tell the story of their love of cinema through the lens of a crisis of faith. Josh Brolin stars as a old timey Hollywood fixer who must consider if the work he does (mostly trying to make sure his ill-tempered movie stars do what they’re supposed to do) is worth it. He’s been offered another job, one that will pay more and be easier, but there’s just something about movies… The Coens lovingly pay tribute to all sorts of films as we see Scarlett Johansson in a water set piece, Channing Tatum tap dance his way through a musical number, and breakout star Alden Ehrenreich try to transition from cowboy pictures to a prestige drama. At the center also lies a comical mystery in the disappearance of George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, which helps tie together the existentialism that Brolin faces. While the crisis facing Brolin is about the power of movies, it also doubles as an affirmation that movies do have a spiritual worth that can lead us into a better well being–good thing too, because I keep watching them.
2. The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut offers up a wacky dystopian world, one in which people without romantic partners are forced to live together in a hotel and if they do not find love within 30 days they are turned into an animal of their choosing. It’s a subtle and often dark comedy that parodies our Bachelor watching culture that is obsessed with finding “the one”. As the film progresses though, the nature of the parody changes a little, showing that the opposite of a ridiculous belief, when taken to the extreme, can also be awful. It’s a strange movie to be sure, but was one of the most fun stories to watch play out.
- The VVitch
The Witch succeeds not by giving us supernatural frights (though that is there), but by heightening tensions in what is, at its core, a family drama. Robert Eggers’ horror flick shows us a horror not brought about by explicit evil, but by bringing us into hyper-religious colonial America, a world devoid of grace. In this world where blame out signifies love true terror is allowed to breed like wildfire. The film could almost be titled “How to turn your child into a witch” for it so perfectly captures the idea of how something like this could come to be. To boost, the film is beautifully shot and Anya-Taylor Joy gives an outstanding performance. The ending is extremely dark, let that be known, but it hammers home that idea that when we don’t allow for grace in our lives, it is the most horrid of all evils.