There are two ways we can choose to frame 2016 now that it’s in the rear view mirror: as a year of relentless struggle, heartbreak, political strife and social unrest, or as a year that tested our endurance and reinforced our resolve to always see the best in humanity and work towards putting out best selves out into the world. As with most trials and tribulations, that’s the overarching choice – to let our hardships define us, or to use those hardships to shape our own, stronger definitions of ourselves. If all of this seems terribly overblown and melodramatic just you wait, as I will now attempt to explain what should be the least important real-life issue of the year, the film industry, in this exact context:
As many of my reviews have noted since January, this had been a decidedly bad year for cinema in many respects. This summer, executives were rocked by a string of flops. Many of these were sequels or reboots to established franchises, or at least hefty moneymakers in their time, yet these sure bets such as Zoolander 2, Allegiant, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Neighbors 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence, The BFG, Ghostbusters, Ben-Hur, Inferno and Bad Santa 2 all managed to either flat-out bomb or disappoint financially. It’s a dismal picture, especially considering how unnecessary or just plain bad many of these movies were in the first place. Many of those that did manage to succeed critically and commercially weren’t much better from a quality perspective. There were gems here and there (as my list will reflect), but overall this has been the most depressing lineup of the decade, both for Hollywood and the independent sector.
Even the start of the last quarter was ominous, with anticipated Oscar hopefuls like Sully, The Birth of a Nation, Snowden, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and promising studio films like The Girl on the Train and The Accountant failing to gain any traction. To follow the common consensus for 2016 would be to simply conclude, “this was a terrible year for movies just like it was a terrible year for everything else, so let’s move on and hope next year is better.” That was my position going into the final stretch as well. But something unexpected happened: great movies started pouring out on almost a weekly basis. Many were smaller indies, ones that you had to actively seek out, but film distributors were truly saving the best for the last… and cutting it closer than most years. So, do we define a year by the disappointment and cynicism of the majority, or by the surprise success and genuine spirit of a minority unwilling to be engulfed by negativity and doubt? I choose to celebrate 2016, both in and out of cinema, for the little victories, the small nuggets of hope and the perseverance of the few. And may that perseverance pay off on 2017.
Here are my top ten movies of 2016:
10. Manchester by the Sea
Themes of grief are easy to come by on this list, but no film conveyed such a strong sense of lingering misery than Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful drama about a depressed Boston handyman (Casey Affleck) and his suddenly parentless teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). A revolving door of heartbreaking flashbacks emphasizes the futility of trying to escape from the painful memories of the past, demonstrating in a natural and vivid way how those traumatic experiences can consciously and subconsciously continue to effect one’s ability to move forward with their lives. This is rendered all the more effective thanks to Affleck’s immensely understated performance. He’s one of the rare talents who can sum up a scene’s worth of dialogue in one move of an eyebrow, or an empty stare into space. While the measured pacing and intentionally unresolved ending may rub some the wrong way, they ultimately serve to construct the year’s most true-to-life depiction of the intangible and immeasurable cost of trauma.
So how is it then that Manchester, such an expertly constructed downer, also manages to be one of the funniest movies of the year? That might be the true key to the film’s genius. While Affleck’s cold isolation (befitting the film’s frigid winter setting) seeps off the screen in every sequence where he’s by himself, or at least trying to be, there’s an unavoidable warmth every time he’s engaged in conversation with just about everyone he meets, especially Hedges’ cocky but charming high schooler. Laugh out loud humor comes all the more easily because, by all accounts, nothing should be funny about the situations any of these characters are in. Lonergan seems to be saying that, while it may be impossible to forget one’s painful memories or to restart one’s broken relationships, it’s equally fruitless to evade one’s happy memories or to restart one’s loving relationships. It’s an unexpectedly positive message, one everyone should take with them into the new year.
9. Certain Women
This year has been an undeniably embattled one for women. Many saw the defeat of Hillary Clinton not just as the literal expression of a host of national ailments, but as a symbolic loss for gender equality in America. A less high-stakes, but no less indicative controversy occurred earlier this year with the hostile online reaction to the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, which carried with it the unmistakable whiff of misogyny (though it’s debatable just how much of a factor that was). On the other side, there’s been vocal backlash, mostly from the conservative sphere, against what some perceive as the hyperbolic and equally hostile rhetoric of fervent feminist circles derogatorily referred to as ‘Social Justice Warriors’. The point is that, whichever side you stand on, loud voices and vitriolic language was the name of the game for gender politics in 2016. Maybe in hindsight, we can all agree that what we needed wasn’t to out-yell our adversaries, but to find more subdued methods for expressing our viewpoints and airing our grievances.
This is what makes Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women such essential viewing, and so different from all other depictions of women on screen this year. It’s the slowest, quietest and most ambiguous masterpiece of 2016, but it is also one of the most confident. The first secret ingredient is patience, as Reichardt utilizes long, static shots, minimalistic dialogue and hushed ambient noise to emphasize the interminable wait her four female characters must endure to claim their deserved independence and self-worth. The second ingredient is trust: trust in her characters who may never get what they’re looking for but never lose their will to keep searching, trust in her actors who with the most minuscule of looks and subtlest of line delivery turn themselves into sympathetic, full-bodied heroines, and trust in her audience, who she believes can understand and empathize with these women’s struggles without having it laid out or even fully resolved for them. Perhaps it’s these two qualities -patience and trust – which bring these specifically female issues to such vivid life, is what ongoing identity debates could use more of in the coming months and years.
8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The highly-celebrated Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn’t make my Top 10 list last year, so it comes as a genuine surprise that I enjoyed this newest entry as much as I did. This is mainly a product of director Gareth Edwards’ top class world building skills. The diverse array of planets are so intelligently and meticulously detailed, illustrated with the most impressive visual effects to date. More impressive still is that the film manages to be the grittiest Star Wars yet, without sacrificing the franchise’s penchant for bright colors, quirky creatures and imaginative environments (try it some time, Fantastic Beasts). Unlike the freewheeling, optimistic spirit of past Star Wars films, this is a brutal war story and that tone sets itself apart, while connecting to and expanding on established lore in fascinating ways. As someone who doesn’t really consider himself a Star Wars fan (I hadn’t seen the original three films until I was well into college), the fact that I was so invested not just in this standalone story but in its implications on the series as a whole is a testament to how deeply the franchise has seeped into popular culture, as well as just how consistent and passionate Disney managed to be with its rejuvenation of the brand.
While a mindless action flick at heart, the writers also went out of their way to explore themes of moral grayness and responsibility that one would expect from any high-minded war movie. Most telling, droid K2SO seem at first nothing more than the traditional scene-stealing comic relief, an Imperial droid who’s been reprogrammed to fight for the Rebel Alliance and has lost his filter in the process. But there’s something to be said about the ease in which he is able to switch sides with a simple circuitry adjustment, compared to the complex moral conundrums that continuously haunt the humans heroes. Meanwhile, one of the main criticisms I’ve heard is that those humans aren’t nearly as memorable as Rey or Finn. While I won’t deny that, the relatively flimsy character arcs and relationships didn’t bother me much, since this particular story is focused more on the struggles of one collective versus another, and is only concerned with individuals in how they come to terms with the side they’ve chosen. Once that happens, the movie culminates in a stunning final battle, undoubtedly the most exhilarating, explosive spectacle of the year.
7. The Handmaiden
The less said about this spoilerific South Korean gem, other than every open-minded person should give it a shot, the better. It’s a gloriously manic mindf*ck in the tradition of twisty Hitchcockian classics, where director Chan-wook Park (of Oldboy fame) takes just as much obvious joy in playing with his audience as the audience does in getting played with. This intriguing erotic thriller makes use of Park’s greatest strengths with incredibly stylish, dynamic visuals, enigmatic characters, impeccably placed plot reveals and dark, envelope-pushing content, in an outrageous package that will appeal to fans of fellow master provocateurs like Quentin Tarantino. The Handmaiden is one of those rare ‘pure cinema’ experiences that never, not for one second, settles for being anything other than hypnotically engaging. Park assaults the senses with rampant bursts of intrigue, deception, violence and sexuality, demonstrating all of those elements in unique and edgy ways that will boggle the mind, first to consider how anyone could have thought of it, and then to consider how they were crazy enough to actually follow through.
This oddball work of art also contains one of the strongest and most distinctive romantic relationships in cinema history, certainly a surprise coming from a filmmaker who is commonly known for emotionally detached, socially isolated characters. There’s always more than meets the eye to the evolving bond between Korean Sook-hee (the eponymous handmaiden with mysterious ulterior motives) and Japanese Hideko (the heiress she serves), no matter how many times you are tricked into believing you’ve figured it all out. The way in which their connection grows is depicted via an onslaught of the most bizarre, outrageous and inexplicably beautiful scenes I can recall. It becomes neigh impossible to pick out a ‘most memorable’ moment from among the dazzling pageant of insanity that just keeps one-upping itself. It’s a modern masterpiece so cutting-edge that I would struggle to recommend it to those of a certain age or disposition, but for fans of the weirder and darker side of cinema, The Handmaiden is a must-watch of the highest order.
6. Nocturnal Animals
Similar to The Handmaiden, fashion designer-turned master director Tom Ford’s second film is so delightfully devious in its construction that its own inherently flawed nature, including jarring tonal shifts and ludicrously gaudy presentation, becomes a godsend in an era when movies are often either too afraid to take themselves seriously or too afraid to break their own illusion. Nocturnal Animals is afraid of neither. In fact, it hinges on the ability to enable and disrupt audience immersion with equal fluidity. It is a bold film, impeccably acted and cleverly arranged so that fantasy and reality don’t so much blur together as they do embrace each other with knowing grins. It’s ‘story within a story narrative’ is not a revolutionary technique, but Ford weaponizes the device to force viewers to reconsider how they engage with fiction and how it shades their perception of the real world. It presents a world in which fiction is both more believable and more diabolical than truth, and (in addition to being useful tool for understanding the spread of ‘fake news’) that messaging serves as empowerment for audiences as much as it does for the filmmakers who get to manipulate their willing servants.
While the complex themes and playful manipulation of structure and genre tropes are what will allow the film to thrive as a subject of film theory and criticism for decades to come, it’s also worth noting that the film’s pulpy, lurid story is just plain entertaining on a surface level. Much of the credit can be placed on the remarkably tight editing, immaculate pacing, crackling dialogue and some of the year’s greatest performances. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two very different types of characters in the film, an intentionally confusing but inherently fascinating choice that only an actor of his caliber could pull off with such success. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an actor whose work I have despised in the past, gives a career-best turn as the slimy, sadistic main antagonist, while Michael Shannon steals the entire film in a role that is simultaneously hilarious and tragic. These three in particular are responsible for Animals’ handful of stand-out scenes, which become almost transgressively tense and gripping. It all makes for a stunningly idiosyncratic tale built to make people talk and think about it for days or weeks, whether they want to or not.
5. Swiss Army Man
You know how I said The Handmaiden had one of the most distinctive romantic relationships in cinema history? By default, Swiss Army Man must be up there as well, as Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe star respectively as an insecure loner and a dead gaseous corpse, who learn to love each other in order to survive in the wilderness. It may sound like I just threw a bunch of random words together to form that last sentence, but that is indeed the premise of this absurd debut movie from a pair of commercial directors who simply call themselves ‘The Daniels’. It’s the year’s wildest ride, unflinchingly it’s own thing in the tradition of post-modern oddities such as Being John Malkovich. What makes this one special isn’t simply that it’s weird but that it openly explores what it means to be ‘weird’, and why that’s often seen as an ostracizing quality, both in art and in real life. That earnest self-awareness allows the film to speak directly to its audience, forming a connection between screen and viewer that is a rare and special thing.
The Daniels also continuously find inventive ways to expand on its premise, of a dead body with enough survival applications that it could put Bear Grylls out of business. The film is strangely moving and downright hilarious in equal measure, thanks especially to Radcliffe’s commendable commitment to the role of an innocent corpse with a heart of gold. It somehow manages to be his best performance to date, and definitely a wise choice as he continues to distance himself further from his most famous role. The erratic nature of the plot is reflected in all other aspects of the movie as well, from the infectious acapella score by Andy Hull & Robert McDowell, to the makeshift, childlike design of the sets, props and costumes. The result is a production that may be inane, but it is at the very least incredibly consistent, singular and heartwarming in its inanity. It presents a vision so unique and captivating that it forces you to forget everything you know about conventional film narrative and then invites you to have fun in the chaos that remains.
4. Everybody Wants Some!!
Though it came and went from theaters without much notice from general audiences, this year saw the release of director Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his teen classic, Dazed and Confused. While it appears it won’t gain a level of popularity near that of its 1993 predecessor, Everybody Wants Some!! easily matches that film in terms of raw transportive power and youthful optimism, qualities that continue to mark Linklater as one of the most vital filmmakers alive today. This is a light and mostly plotless comedy taking place in the collegiate world of the 1980s (whereas Dazed took place in a ’70s high school), revolving around a house full of knuckle-headed baseball players in the golden days before classes begin. The experience of watching the movie is akin to hanging out with a bunch of new friends, and as they make tiny realizations about themselves and their place in the world, you learn it right along with them. It’s a movie with the rare ability to trigger the epiphanies of a developing mind in those who have already developed. In other words, this is a powerful form of emotional, developmental time travel that takes you to a physical and mental time and place you thought was long gone.
The movie has come under fair criticism for its treatment of women, being that it centers around a group of bros (née jocks) who care more about getting laid than everything else… other than maybe baseball, which in turn they care about mostly because it will get them laid. That many of the characters (though notably not protagonist Jake, played by Blake Jenner) constantly objectify women is not up for debate – they do. But the claim that Linklater himself is condoning or encouraging this is just plain wrong, especially by the time Beverly (Zoey Deutch) becomes a major presence in the story and reveals herself as the smartest, most self-assured person in the entire film. To not depict the rampant misogyny of the time period (which is not much better on current day campuses) would do a disservice to the ability of storytellers to paint an authentic picture, and to these young characters who feel all the more human for their flaws.
3. Sing Street
While everyone is going gaga over La La Land, few realize that a much more honest, charming and inspiring musical came out much earlier in the year. That movie is Sing Street, an instant classic that would certainly be recognized as such if not for the lamentable decision to release it back in April when Disney’s The Jungle Book juggernaut was decimating the box office and eating up moviegoers’ attention. Directed by John Carney (Once and Begin Again), this ’80s set coming-of-age dramedy focuses on young Dublinite (Dubliner? Dubloon?) Conor, who is forced into a Catholic high school and decides to start a rock band in a classic bid to win the affection of a girl (Lucy Boynton, one of the year’s most under the radar acting revelations). Luckily for those tired of this cliched set up, the girl ultimately becomes less important than Conor’s blooming sense of self, his newfound appreciation of friends and family, and his burgeoning musical abilities. In the bargain, we get a string of infectious songs, hilarious scenarios that reek of teenage awkwardness, and a warm and authentic illustration of how the people who influence us in turn lead us to influence others in an unknowably wide, unconscious chain of shared self-expression.
Carney has become known for conveying these kinds of sophisticated, ineffable themes through the use of music, and this time he pulls it off with more nuance and skill than ever. By seamlessly blending classic ’80s rock songs with his own original compositions, he perfectly captures how artists take what resonates with them and then twists them into something wholly their own. It may be the most accurate and impassioned portrayal of youthful creativity ever put to film, but Carney’s secret weapon is the bond between Conor and his MTV-loving older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), who serves as a classic Obi-Wan mentor character for most of the film, until their relationship suddenly explodes into something far more complex, heartbreaking but ultimately inspirational. By the time the credits roll, what started out as a standard (but impeccably made) teen movie has become one of the world’s most sincere and indispensable demonstrations of the binding powers of art. Works of art never exist in a vacuum; they are psychic collaborations between the artist, everyone the artist has ever known, and everywhere the artist has ever been.
An extraordinary vision of human compassion, Barry Jenkins’ soul-rending masterpiece needs no introduction. It’s a decades-spanning portrait of an individual with a cracked understanding of his own legacy and sexuality, with three talented actors cast to play Chiron as a child, a teenager and an adult. Of course, this was a choice made out of logistical necessity, yet it perfectly emphasizes the fluidity of human experience, how one can look at him or herself in the mirror and not recognize themselves as the person they used to see. Still, the three performers (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) meld into one singular being so seamlessly that the result is nothing short of miraculous. Without any hint of distraction this casting could have caused, we’re allowed full immersion into a poetic narrative with sparse but potent dialogue that lets the movie do what movies do best: show. Exquisite cinematography from James Laxton providing ethereal colors, intimate closeups and long, bravura tracking shots make for astounding visual spectacle that allows the emotional intensity to bore deep into the mind.
However, much of the film’s incredible poignancy comes not from Chiron but from those who help or hinder him on his path to becoming himself. There are negative influencers like his drug-addicted, verbally abusive mother played by Naomi Harris, who lends Chiron’s earlier years tragic weight as the boy absorbs feelings of self-loathing into his malleable young mind. But then there’s Juan, an almost clairvoyantly understanding father figure played by Mahershala Ali in what is without a doubt the finest supporting performance of the year, even with a relatively limited amount of screen time. Juan understands how important it is to feed Chiron self-worth at an early age, so that when he eventually leaves the picture, his caring and warmth continues to echo throughout the rest of Chiron’s life. Juan is the rare fictional character that is so well-realized and inherently complex that he follows you out of the theater, so that we may carry his words of infinite wisdom wherever we need it most. That pretty much sums up the movie as a whole. It’s a film that manages in spite of its specificity, to speak to each viewer directly.
Arrival is science fiction filmmaking at its very best, employing a combination of evocative imagery, modern special effects and contemplative hypothetical scenarios to confront real-life issues on scales both small (personal loss and regret) and large (political instability and the fear of planetary destruction). It’s a movie about communication, both how we transfer our ideologies and emotions from one person or group to another, and how we communicate our own complicated feelings to ourselves. But first and foremost, it’s a highly suspenseful and beautifully eerie thriller that sticks out by downplaying those moments of spectacle that most directors would play up, masterfully withholding visual information to build maximum tension and a sense of dread. It isn’t afraid to dive deep into complex ideas about language, and probes existential themes without an ounce of pretension, but that it manages to juggle all that high-minded content and still remain so totally gripping is the mark of a true masterwork, and a must-see for any and all audiences.
As with previous films from director Denis Villeneuve (he just keeps getting better and better), the atmosphere is thoroughly dour and oppressive, with a dark and muddy color palette and Johann Johannson’s foreboding, ethereal score. And then there’s the script, which takes frequent right turns to linger on Amy Adam’s traumatic loss of a child, suddenly breaking the focus away from the aliens – again, most studios would never allow such an untraditional, anti-blockbuster approach. What’s most astonishing is that despite all this dreariness, at the end the film unexpectedly morphs into something unexpectedly joyous and inspirational. How this happens is for you to experience for yourself (and it is an experience) but let’s just say this is one of the rare, transcendent movies that has the power to recalibrate your brain and change how you view the world long after the movie is over. It serves as a potential tool for living a better life and diffusing conflict, and as a reminder that all the hardship and grief you may face, in 2016 and beyond, can look a lot like hope if you just adjust your perspective.
As always, there are far too many great movies for me to leave it at 10, so I would like to leave you with the following honorable mentions that I would recommend to just about anyone: Patriots Day by Peter Berg, Life, Animated by Roger Ross Williams, Weiner by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg, The Neon Demon by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Witch by Robert Eggers, Loving by Jeff Nichols, Don’t Think Twice by Mike Birbiglia, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years by Ron Howard, Hunt for the Wilderpeople by Taika Waititi, and Fences by Denzel Washington.
Additionally, you can check out my full ranked list of all the movies I’ve seen that came out in 2016, as well as my own personal ‘awards’ by clicking this link.
See you in 2017!