Apologies for the extended absence from blogging. Other film writing opportunities and urgent planning for life after graduation have regrettably kept me from posting as frequently as I would have liked. Still, I am happy to be able to continue the annual best-film-of-the-year list-making tradition.
A few notes before we begin:
- Only films that made a U.S. theatrical or VOD debut in 2016 were considered for this list. Therefore, if a film hit the festival circuit in 2015 but didn’t arrive in theaters until 2016, then it was in the running to be included (e.g. The Invitation). By the same token, if a film debuted at a 2016 festival but won’t hit theaters or VOD until 2017, then it was not eligible (e.g. The Lost City of Z).
- As usual, given limitations in when and where certain films play as well as in the time I have to watch movies, I was unfortunately not able to see many of 2016’s highest-profile releases before making this list. Here are some of my most egregious misses (in alphabetical order): 20th Century Women, American Honey, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, A Bigger Splash, Certain Women, De Palma, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden, High Rise, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I Am Not Your Negro, Jackie, Kate Plays Christine, Little Men, Moana, The Neon Demon, Nocturnal Animals, Paterson, Pete’s Dragon, The Red Turtle, Right Now Wrong Then, Sully, Sunset Song, Swiss Army Man, Things To Come, Tony Erdmann, Weiner, Your Name.
Now, without further ado, the list. Feel free to dispute my choices and counter with lists of your own. I love conversations, and few more than conversations about movies 🙂
UPDATE: The original, first-place film has been dethroned by Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, a sublime blending of the personal with the political, beautiful images with ruminations on what it means to capture such images. I wrote on the film here.
15. Don’t Breathe
Don’t Breathe would make a great double bill with Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, given that both confine their characters’ fight for survival to tight indoor spaces. But whereas Saulnier’s picture uses this initial constraint of place as a point of departure for raw, naturalistic violence, artifice remains ever-present in Fede Alvarez’s horror hit. From an ostentatious long take that maps out exactly where both hunter and hunted can maneuver within the given space to the crutch of blindness so pointedly written into the villain’s characterization, Don’t Breathe often feels less like an act of storytelling than a cinematic exercise whose rules have been self-consciously spelled out. Accordingly, plot development exists largely as a string of increasingly tense set-pieces, where each successive segment feels like Alvarez testing his chops, showing us what he can do. Ultimately, the success of Don’t Breathe’s craftsmanship lies in the balance it strikes between immersiveness and distanciation, on the one hand not being so self-referential in its showiness as to break a sense of narrative consequence, on the other heightening the intensity by keeping us aware that we are at the filmmaker’s mercy.
The above blurb was originally published as a part of The Film Stage’s “10 Wide Releases in 2016 That Exceeded Expectations” list.
14. Green Room
For a distilled shot of stripped-down savagery, look no further than Green Room, a film that, in some ways, deserves comparison with The Raid: Redemption. Both movies lock their characters in a physically cramped, pressure-cooker environment and then set them loose in an animalistic fight for survival. But whereas the heroes in The Raid had the pseudo-superpower of pencak silat, the ragtag protagonists of Green Room are but a group of punk rock kids, forced to rise to the extraordinary and terrifying occasion of a murderous neo-nazi gang led by a scenery-chewing Patrick Stewart. Seeing these floundering youths tap their inner barbarity is a deeply satisfying (albeit disturbing) experience; as an additional plus, Saulnier artfully sprinkles moments of unlikely comedy into the mix—for instance, the sitcom-y sight of seeing the heroes return again and again to the same, titular green room after failed attempts at escape. Pulpy and yet 100% fat-free, Green Room is efficient cinematic craft that’s also juicy enough in its filmmaking to foreground the role of the crazy cook in the kitchen.
If Arrival is any indication of what Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel will be like, then come end-of-year 2017, we’ll be in good hands. Filled with majestic widescreen shots as lensed by Selma‘s Bradford Young and scored by the formidable Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose groaning, otherworldly music lends a mighty Kubrickian air to the film’s proceedings, Arrival has the feel of a modern sci-fi classic, brimming with both atmosphere and brain-teasing ideas. The film is especially strong in the latter department, exploring the phenomenon of language from both a linguistic standpoint (if aliens arrived on our doorstep, how would we actually go about trying to communicate with them?) and a metaphorical one (rather than fighting those who are different, why not try reaching out?) The movie ends with a plot twist, and though I am not yet convinced that it works, it is the kind of twist that feels less like a ploy to shock the audience than a genuine attempt at taking the themes and characterizations that had come before and steering them in a bold new direction. If the twist works for me upon a rewatch, Arrival may very well advance on this list in leaps and bounds.
12. Sing Street
Is it just me, or do the guy and girl in this movie look like grown-up versions of the adolescent lovers from Moonrise Kingdom? The similarities don’t stop there. Like Wes Anderson’s picture, Sing Street wears melancholy beneath its colorful exteriors, observing broken families and wandering individuals attempting to find solace in music and with each other. The sadness and subsequent healing that occur form the crux of Sing Street’s beauty. Well, that and the music, which has been the main point of attraction for this movie ever since it was announced that John Carney of Once and Begin Again fame would be directing. The songs in Sing Street live up to the hype, and while they’re not quite on the level of the heart-baring ballads in Once, they offer a sweet and soulful counterpoint to the darkness 2016 has brought.
11. Kubo and the Two Strings
If the entirety of Kubo had been as good as its opening third, the film would have easily placed into one of the top five slots on this list . Impossibly fluid stop-motion, impossibly gorgeous art direction (think a mix of Japanese folkloric iconography and Tim Burton-esque gothic sensibilities), and an impossibly haunting premise ensure the film encounters us like some otherworldly object, forged from the ether of the sublime. The film’s second act feels like a partial retreat away from the aesthetic/emotional boldness of the opening, defaulting to relatively routine (albeit effective) comic relief and a more straightforward adventure plot, but at this point Kubo still casts a spell. It is when the disappointingly rote finale hits that the film truly drops a few pegs, but even this creative cop-out can’t undo the ineffable enchantment of earlier moments. Some of Kubo’s scenes are truly untouchable: the heartbreaking characterization of Kubo’s grieving mother, the delightfully chilling entrance of Kubo’s evil aunts, a storm-set sword fight that moves like quicksilver. To experience such moments is to be left eternally grateful for cinema and the beauty of its invented worlds.
A modified version of the above blurb was originally published as a part of The Film Stage’s “Best Directorial Debuts of 2016” list.
10. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids
The risk of filming a staged performance is that cinema might become subordinated to theater, with the camera being reduced to its function as a recording apparatus. Legendary music documentarist Jonathan Demme brushes aside such concerns in Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, an exuberant experience that unites live concert with cinematic sleights of hand, creating a hybrid art form that showcases the best of both mediums. Through agile camerawork that weaves among the onstage performers, bringing us closer to the moment-to-moment blossoming of spectacle than live attendance would have allowed, the film does something remarkable: it turns the vast, ostensibly impersonal space of a massive stadium venue into a zone of intimacy and community. Rather than showcasing superstar JT and leaving everyone else in the shadow, the film makes it a point to emphasize the contributions of all the musicians, dancers, and backup singers, as well as of the crowd whose ecstatic showerings of affection are what constitute Timberlake’s celebrity status. “It takes a village to make a pop superstar,” Keith Uhlich wrote in his review of the film, and this spot-on description encapsulates JT + Tennessee Kids: a film that celebrates not just a pop star but the pop experience, which, in its ideal form, is a collective labor of love.**
The above blurb was originally published as a part of The Film Stage’s “Best Documentaries of 2016” list.
9. Hell or High Water
Stripped-down in the best sense of the phrase, Hell or High Water is a near-masterpiece of pithiness. It takes just a nervous glance during a heist to establish the differences in personality between Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers who take up burglary after the former is driven to financial straits by banks looking to foreclose his home. A bit later in the film, ten seconds of dialogue are used to map out what most movies take entire scenes to expound: these two men grew up under an abusive father, and against his mother’s wishes, the older Tanner was the only one who stood up to him. Such narrative eloquence is matched cinematographically, such as when a single take is used to convey both a capacious sense of space and the tense ticking of the clock. Tightness of construction does not preclude epic scope, however, and the film emerges not only an airtight thriller but a portrait of post-Recession America as both a deeply felt reality and merely the most recent episode in a historical cycle of exploitation and loss. Impeccably constructed on so many levels and possessing a wealth of humanity, Hell or High Water is further proof that the Western genre has more than survived the transition into the new millennium.
8. Manchester By the Sea
A singular performance by Casey Affleck anchors Manchester By the Sea, a film that ventures into the well-trod narrative territory of the grieving parent, but there are subtleties to the movie’s construction that enrich and intensify the emotional experience. A flashback structure that develops the characters with an astute sense of pace. Moments of surprising humor that humanize the grief by exposing the real-life awkwardness underpinning the tragedy of grief, which can be so easily idealized by art. The transcendent score that, at once melodramatic and pastoral, translates private agonies and spiritual discontents into an aural tide.Tales of the bereaved form an impressive pantheon in film history—a few personal favorites include Three Colors: Blue, Departures, Up, and Gravity. The powerful Manchester By the Sea worthily joins their ranks.
7. The Invitation
If there existed a list of film history’s queasiest dinner parties, the one in The Invitation would easily make the cut, giving the likes of Festen and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a run for their money (see also this year’s Krisha, which received an honorable mention below). Director Karyn Kusama pitches the viewer headfirst into an uncomfortable situation—a man and his date have been invited to a reunion party thrown by his ex-wife—and then intensifies the unease with agonizing slowness. Relying on a grating, strings-heavy score and impeccable screenwriting that refuses until the very end to confirm or deny the hero’s suspicions of sinister scheming between his ex-wife and her new husband, The Invitation paralyzes us with suspense even as it becomes a heart-rending exploration of the grieving process. Go into this one cold, and prepare to be shaken.
This film is a blast. Outside of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, I have seen few if any animated movies that appeal as much to adults as it does to kids; in my book, Zootopia actually outstrips its 2016 Pixar counterpart Finding Dory (though that film still managed to nab an honorable mention). Intelligent screwball dialogue and film noir intrigue drive the film’s proceedings, peppering references to Breaking Bad, The Godfather, and Chinatown into its deceptively conventional-looking universe of animated anthropomorphic animals. Also beneath the film’s seemingly stock surface is a crash course on race relations in America for the kiddos, told with a depth and clarity rarely seen in movies marketed toward young children. All these elements make for a rollicking adventure that is as smart as it is edifying, as hilarious as it is heartfelt.
Read my full review here.
5. O.J.: Made in America
This sprawling, 467-minute documentary on O.J. Simpson and the sociological circumstances underpinning his rise and fall is a hugely ambitious work. Tighter editing in certain parts would have helped reduce redundancies and better sustain the momentum of the film’s narrative, but these issues seem trivial when viewed alongside the film’s towering accomplishments. O.J.: Made in America is a dizzyingly nuanced portrait of race relations in America, a gripping masterpiece of non-fiction storytelling, and, perhaps most impressively, an utterly persuasive demonstration of how a society can “make” a person. By the film’s end, I was convinced that the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were the fault of not just a single man but the culture that bred him. Many films implicate society in any number of crimes and expect us to take their word for it, pulling the nurture-over-nature card with little additional explanation. A rare few, like O.J. and the next film on this list, give us a play-by-play of how society actually commits these crimes.
Following the stunning Selma, which conveyed a present-tense urgency sorely lacking in many biopics and radically distributed screen-time away from Dr. King to communicate the collectivity inherent to any reform movement, Ava DuVernay has shifted her rhetorical approach, but her anger remains. Whereas Selma was emotive and explosive, 13th is lucid and level-headed, gradually and methodically making a case that black incarceration is actually just a reconfigured and rebranded form of slavery. Sticking to conventional but effective documentary tactics that maximize the clarity of her message, DuVernay crafts a shockingly compelling argument that swells in power with each additional interviewee and statistic. As everything from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Nixon’s War on Drugs to the prison system’s economic incentive is implicated in the perpetuation of the new slavery, 13th transcends its journalistic ethos to become a call to action as well as indisputable proof that DuVernay is one of the most important filmmakers working today.
The above blurb was originally published as a part of The Film Stage’s “Best Documentaries of 2016” list
Two viewings in and I have still yet to fully grasp the richness—of ideas, of feeling—that permeate every shot, lyric, and note of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. My most recent impression of this visual album is that it maps out the various, interwoven strata of the singer’s identity as a black American woman, wife, mother, daughter, and celebrity whose personhood is inextricably tied to the various communities to which she belongs and with which she stands—no, fights—in solidarity. The intimacy of this work is staggering. Through song and spoken-word poetry, Beyoncé crafts a profoundly phenomenological experience, invoking often violent, bodily imagery to convey the material, anatomical reality of being a woman as well as the convulsive pain of being betrayed. At the same time, the images depict a society where black women and girls have reclaimed the spaces associated with black slavery—an imagined Eden whose blatant fictionality only highlights the brokenness of the real world all the more. If the majority of American films are like limp breezes that barely move us to think, let alone to feel and to act, then Lemonade is a hurricane. It blows down houses and rocks boats, and the waves it makes are enormous.
2. 10 Cloverfield Lane
Blockbuster sequels often feel like cash grabs rather than genuine attempts at quality filmmaking, but 10 Cloverfield Land is a brilliant anomaly. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg ratchets up the suspense to unbearable levels, ingeniously exploiting viewer uncertainty about, firstly, whether the heroine’s imprisonment within a bomb shelter is really meant to protect her from the radioactive fallout of an unseen nuclear apocalypse, and secondly, whether the next moment in the film will glide uneventfully by or erupt into violence. 10 Cloverfield Lane controls our emotions like a puppeteer does his marionettes, and the fiber keeping the wires intact is John Goodman. Playing the captor with unclear motivations, Goodman exudes an off-putting earnestness that invites our trust in one instance (he can’t be lying, right?) and paralyzes us with fear in the next (we realize he can’t be reasoned with). As for the film’s finale, some people scoff at it, but I found it exhilarating: a bonkers paean to female badassery that proves Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s mettle as a genre leading lady to rival the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Charlize Theron.
The above blurb was originally published as a part of The Film Stage’s “10 Wide Releases in 2016 That Exceeded Expectations” list
1. La La Land
The reach of dreamers and the enchantment of the past animate the intoxicating dream world of La La Land, a film that imbues modern-day Los Angeles with the radiant polychromatic sheen of Hollyood’s golden-age Technicolor musicals. And yet, the film’s soul lies not in its nostalgia or imagined paradises but in their confrontation with life’s indifference. Playing characters who strive to reconcile their stargazing with the cold, hard earth beneath their feet, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling deliver performances packed with both play and pathos—hers is quite possibly a career best, his a poignant channeling of the stoic Hollywood leading men of yore. This motif of romance versus reality plays out at the level of the filmmaking as well, with Chazelle self-consciously negotiating the tension between nostalgizing the past and embracing modern sensibilities—for instance, although the film features numerous, classically-inspired dance numbers, these are adorned with the kind of cinematographic acrobatics Chazelle’s predecessors likely wouldn’t have been able to perform. Ironically, it is the lack of easy resolution that concludes La La Land so perfectly in the form of a show-stopping epilogue, which emulates Umbrellas of Cherbourg and 25th Hour while simultaneously taking off into a stratosphere of genius all its own. There, the best parts of the film—the fiery expressionism of the art direction, the chemistry between Stone and Gosling, and especially the music, which cuts past any attempt at meaning-mongering to pierce the heart directly—converge in a scene of breathtaking beauty. It needs to be seen to be believed.
Honorable Mentions (alphabetical order):
The physically and ideologically action-packed Captain America: Civil War, the visually splendid Doctor Strange, the drama about stand-up comedy Don’t Think Twice, the philosophical bro comedy Everybody Wants Some!!, sweetness incarnate Finding Dory, the Aronofsky-esque Krisha, the Victorian-era screwball comedy Love & Friendship, the achingly tender Moonlight, and the spooky feminist ghost movie Under the Shadow.