What to say about 2016 that hasn’t already been written? Personally, I watched more new-release films than I ever had before. Films offered a great antidote for the year. They allowed us to cancel out the noise and focus on the particular. This doesn’t mean they ignored difficult subjects, quite the contrary. The best films of the year confronted identity, injustice, and a world plunging itself into darkness because it can’t deal with complexity. The movies allowed some time to face the complexities of the world in a dark room, and I think that’ll only become more important.
So, here are the films that I loved the most.
As far as Hollywood is concerned, Disney continued to solidify itself as a powerhouse, if not a straight up monopoly, at the multiplexes. Zootopia and Moana solidified than the in-house Disney Animation Studio could match Pixar’s acclaim. Disney’s owned material, the Marvel films and Rogue One expectedly gobbled up their respective box office releases. The Jungle Book brought the live-action adaptations of their historic animated films out of the mundane. (Though I’ll admit it’s tough for me to consider it live-action since 95% of it is generated.) But it was in Disney’s slate of live-action films, the ones released under the Disney banner proper, where the studio provided the real attractions this year, even though most of them were overlooked by audiences. The Finest Hours, Queen of Katwe, and Pete’s Dragon were all phenomenal films that, while different in tone and style, each focused on small-scale tales of heroism in the face of nature, circumstances, and tragedy. And while I was less enamored with it, Steven Speilberg’s The BFG is also a worthy addition to the Disney canon that may very well grow in stature as time marches on.
Best Supporting Performance: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Ali’s performance as Juan, the principled father-figure to young Chiron, is the most impactful supporting performance I’ve seen in years. The entire cast is excellent and worthy of distinction, but there is a reason that Ali’s performance has sat with audiences the most. In the film’s opening scene, Juan exits his car and surveys the area in which he deals drugs in the Liberty City area of Miami. His eyes tell the story: they dart back and forth as he smokes, looking weary and conflicted, but knowing that his toughness is paramount. Later, the adult Chiron exhibits these same actions, and so Juan’s spirit persists in him. Mentorship is a powerful act, and Jenkin’s work with Juan and Chiron’s dynamic is one of the finest explorations of it.
Best Lead Performance(s), Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, Loving
As Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple whose Supreme Court case successfully toppled anti-miscegenation laws in the US, Negga and Edgerton embody their real-life character’s actions, voices, and mannerisms, sure, but they bring a subtlety not often felt in portrayals of actual people. The actors understand that, above all else, the Lovings just wanted to be left alone, but that the state would not let them. Negga exudes an infinite grace in every hopeful look and instance of despair; Edgerton is just as stoic as he usually is, but he also exhibits a frailty when he’s with Negga, not out of weakness but out of love.
Movie I’ll Probably Come to Love Extensively in a Few Years: Love & Friendship
If I’m a sucker for any niche genre, it’s a British period piece with a decent amount of hoighty comedy. Kate Beckinsale, Tom Bennett, and the rest of consistently hilarious cast make a Jane Austen tale, sublimely directed by Whit Stillman, live and breathe in a way too few films do (and I say that as a fan of most Austen adaptations). Too many films adapted from classic authors neuter any style and essentially let a long dead writer be the driving vision behind the adaptation. Love & Frienship is an Austen work that’s still all its own.
A brief mention of the worst thing I watched this year, something that’s certainly in the running for worst all-time: Suicide Squad
As much an assault on decency as form, I already found little to enjoy in the concept of villains teaming up simply because it’s cool to, and even less so after I watched Suicide Squad.
Favorite of television (or favorite movie if it’s considered one in the span of history): OJ: Made in America
There was no better directed visual work this year than Ezra Edelman’s documentary chronicling the rise, fall, and tragedy of one Orenthal James Simpson, “the Juice”, the world’s most infamous villain who escaped his legendary double murder trial, only to meet pathetic public ends as the years went on. It’s a simply American tale, which means it isn’t simple at all. But watching Edelman work his magic across nearly eight hours, you’d almost believe it was.
And now, the top ten:
10. Hell or High Water
I had written off David Mackenzie’s neo-western basically after I learned the title (still not wild over the title), but was convinced based upon sheer actor interest to see it. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a taunt film that fell with earnestness on the political side of the western, and all that it entails in the current climate. I wouldn’t necessarily call Hell or High Water subtle, but it doesn’t need to be: the people the film is about aren’t really subtle about anything either.
9. Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids
Capturing the final stop on JT’s two year long 20/20 Tour, Jonathan Demme showcases what make modern pop endearing to so many: it’s an almost night herculean task of efficiency and collaboration. Demme loves music, but more than just loving the notes and hooks, he also has great interest in what makes a band work. The Tennessee Kids feature 25 (!) members, and seeing them perform together behind Timberlake is mesmerizing in and of itself. And yet providence also gifts the film with the most charismatic pop figure of his generation.
8. The Handmaiden
A twistily erotic tale not for the faint of heart, The Handmaiden is Park Chan-wook’s best film. I’m not particularly a fan of Oldboy or the other of his vengeance films, but when Park takes the graphic beauty of those film’s style and transmits them to another sort of story, it really works for me. It has its questionable moments of intention, but is ultimately about stories and lies and the differences between the two. The trio of performances at the film’s center (a recurring line throughout many of the year’s best films), bring poignancy to melodrama.
7. Manchester by the Sea
My familiarity with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s past work is slight, but then again his filmography isn’t dense either. And yet, after only three directed features, his voice has cemented itself. His general focus is well-told enough: tragicomic stories with black humor and a love for character. But what makes Manchester, and the rest of Lonergan’s work, special is the sheer skill with which high hilarity is mixed with immense tragedy. What’s more, the character’s at the center aren’t reduced to caricature in order for the comedy and heartbreak to work easier. Much has been made out of the film’s main trio of performances (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges), and with good reason.
6. The Witch
Robert Eggers’ 17th century, New England set horror tale is ripe for multiple ideological readings (each of them fascinating in their own way). It’s easy to see why; the idea of the American “witch” is inherently an ideological and political symbol, and we live in a time where commonly agreed upon political symbols are basically currency. And yet for all the read-on and perhaps intentional ideologies of Egger’s film, The Witch is a brilliant formal historiography, capable of rendering metaphor as truth with its deliberate cinematography and strictly-hewn period dialogue. I doubt this will be the last time an Eggers’ period horror film lands on a best-of list. His next film, an adaptation of Murnau’s Nosferatu, is sure to continue his proclivities for atmospheric period horror. For more on this and Eggers’ directorial role, see Lauren Williford’s great essay for Bright Wall/Dark Room (which expounds of the film’s religious themes and why it was endorsed by the satantic temple).
Just last week, legendary actor John Hurt died and many of us took stock of an incredible career. He still has some films in the release schedule, but it’s fitting that his last release before his passing was Jackie, in which he plays a priest counseling the First Lady after her husband’s assassination. His performance is one of many voices that populate Pablo Larrain’s slice of life-biopic of Jackie Kennedy. Portman inhabits all the conundrums of being a democracy’s marital figurehead, and as well represents the way he paint national figures as messianic – Jackie is as much a Christian madonna figure in this film as a person of state.
Martin Scorsese’s long awaited adaptation of Shūsaku Endo’s novel feels like a film that’s been ruminated over for years. As such, it’s a film about a lot of things, theologically but also historically. It’s a miraculous film on the conundrums and tragedies, historical and philosophical, of being a missionary. I was struck by how the film forces a viewer to wonder at what point, and how well, a missionary can be separated from their mission. Silence isn’t an easy film, and to those not invested in the concepts at hand the film may feel painfully slow. But it’s that slowness that feels most needed.
3. Green Room
I don’t know what exactly I expected with Green Room. It was billed as a high-intensity, artful suspense film with a decidedly B-movie premise. “Punks vs Nazis” may not exceedingly sound like a treatise on our current times, but that was before the rise in white nationalist fervor surrounding last year’s election season. As well, the short tagline doesn’t capture everything that the movie is (it also assumes that the punk band at the film’s center are on the same level of the Neo-nazi group, they aren’t). Jeremy Saulnier’s film deals with complacency to abhorrent ideologies. It’s the most terrifying film of last year, all the more so because it didn’t expect to be.
The fullest realization of the poetics of cinema, its capacity to tell stories untold, and its reliance on the actors that populate it. Chiron, the film’s main character, isn’t given a lot of personality on the page. Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Saunders, and Alex R. Hibbert, however, make Chiron a living breathing figure, realizing Barry Jenkins vision of a boy, young man, and then man cast against the world, a blank slate with endless possibility for love treated as though he is already covered in unattractive outcomes. Moonlight, much like actual moonlight, can be explained, or simply basked in.
Loving is anchored by, and largely works so well because of, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton’s lead performances, but Jeff Nichol’s typically assured direction is, frankly, a revelation in the often stale historical biopic. Political action, as we discover each day under our new administration, isn’t always enjoyable but is sometimes necessary. The Lovings are an archetype of grace and simplistic compassion; the film does a remarkable job of capturing that essence. But I’ll be honest. My attachment to Loving, both the true story and the film, is immensely personal. I truly believe that, attempting objectivity, Nichol’s film is a great film; I also know that it means a great deal to me.
The next ten: The Fits, Love & Friendship, Fences, Everybody Wants Some!!, Arrival, La La Land, Pete’s Dragon, The Age of Shadows, Hail Caesar!, Midnight Special