Typically, compiling a list of the best films in a given year is one of the fun ways to close out said year. But inevitably, 2016 was never going to be “typical.” That merciless year of death and national destruction was also somewhat unforgiving in terms of the film slate – it wasn’t a particularly fabulous movie year as it was, and then as we barreled towards the end, a pesky handful of titles I deemed essential for year-end consideration were staunchly withheld by a few studios in particular. As a result, this list was held hostage by the movies themselves. Don’t blame me – I’m the victim here.
Now that I’m all caught up, it does seem fitting to give 2016’s precious filmic blessings a proper send-off, and so here we are, gathered to celebrate them. After all, who knows if we will even make it to the end of 2017…this may be my last chance to publish a Best of the Year list.
As ever, 2016 hoarded many of its best movies for the end of the year, and snickered at us while we slogged through the muck in the first several months. But what strikes me as I look at my final-ish list (since from one day to the next, perspective can shift among these titles), it’s fairly widespread in terms of release month. The best of 2016, in my view, charts a course from February through December, with titles from each season sprinkled throughout. Not bad for a year that, in total, doesn’t feel particularly jubilant cinematically…and feels downright wretched in all other respects.
I present these films in reverse numerical order, for the sake of a countdown. I feel especially passionate about the top six or seven; after that, it becomes a bit of a muddle, the specific ordering not as important as the simple fact that I feel these films deserve to be highlighted as among the best of the year that just passed. I also don’t feel the need to have a neat and tidy number – I have deemed 23 films worthy of inclusion here, and frankly, that seems appropriate. As year as fractious as 2016 deserves a random, odd-numbered retrospective of its best films.
And so, as we now have a full working knowledge of all the films the Academy deemed 2016’s best, I offer my perspective. Some of them are actually great enough that they will offer cinematic therapy as we navigate our way through the hellfire of 2017.
But here this was supposed to be celebratory. Toss some confetti and toast the champagne, here we go…
- The Neon Demon
Admittedly, Nicolas Winding Refn’s horror show of beauty and body image is not entirely successful. But it’s so rivetingly hypnotic and so willfully pretentious that it still sticks with me. It exists in a world of its own, and repeated visits to that world will be quite rewarding in time.
- Hidden Figures
In a year celebrated for its cinematic diversity, here is the most rousing and crowd-pleasing of the bunch. It is assuredly conventional, with swelling music and the kind of ice-breaking humor that makes its themes of racism and sexism easier to swallow. But this is one of the truly hidden stories that needed to be told, and as conventional studio movies go, this one is about as stirring and wonderful as they come.
A remarkable commentary on the vitality of all images, even those previously left on the cutting room floor. Kirsten Johnson’s patchwork of fragments from her work over a 20-year career is, ironically, dazzling because of its mundaneness. Piecing together so many varied snapshots of moments, places, people, and implications, we become overwhelmed with a sense of unity. Pain, joy, fear, levity, dread, triumph – these are the emotions that make up our shared humanity. And here they all are, presented in organization as random, and as purposeful, as our lives naturally flow.
- Miss Sloane
On the nose, and all the more essential because of that very fact. A loud and brash piece of cinematic fury about doing bad for the sake of good. No filmic outcry is more important in the world we now live in.
- American Honey
Languid and raw, Andrea Arnold’s triptych takes on the precise traits of the subjects she chronicles. It’s a story of aimless lost souls who presume opportunistic enterprise will set them up for a more purposeful life, all the while purpose is right in front of their eyes. A character study about a young woman seeking escape, wandering through an odyssey of unsavory freedom, and eventually finding rebirth in herself.
- I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck unearths James Baldwin’s unfinished distillation of America through the lens of three distinct racially charged tragedies, and in so doing completes its essence. An enthralling mixed-media document that pairs Baldwin’s words with Peck’s images in waves of gut-wrenching resonance. Baldwin saw the endless spiral of American race relations with more philosophical distinction than virtually anyone – and now here we are, still in the tumult.
- O.J.: Made in America
Critics and pundits will forever debate the appropriate box in which to squeeze Ezra Edelman’s sprawling 8-hour epic – is it a film or a TV miniseries? What remains unquestionable is the film’s enormity, its immersive deep dive into one of the most iconic and infamous events in modern history starting at the source and tracing the steps through America’s racial divide to explore a tragedy with far grander implications than just a celebrity murderer.
- A Bigger Splash
Luca Guadagnino is emerging as one of cinema’s foremost expressive talents, and this film, in its rollicking, lurid manner, is the expression of so many conflicting emotions all at once: fame vs. privacy, desire vs. revulsion, comfort vs. restless jealousy. Guadagnino throws them all into a cauldron and observes until they boil over.
- Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols made a duo of wonderful films in 2016, but this one most intensely displays who he is as a filmmaker, one who merges the scientific with the philosophical, who is eager to explore what happens to ordinary folks when confronted with extraordinary circumstances, who meets intense fear with immense wonder. Midnight Special emerged directly from his soul and his gut, a simple father-son story under magnificent duress – but at its core this is a story about sacrificing anything to protect a child, about realizing that point at which our kids have passed us by, about loving and letting go.
- Hell or High Water
Think about all the regulations that had to be put in place in America over the last eight years just to attempt to curb the abuses banks inflicted on their customers. Now think about the inevitability that now those regulations will be lifted, and a new era of extreme corruption will soon take its toll. That anger, and that anxiety, is what propels Hell or High Water into the realm of riveting immediacy. It’s a modern western where the outlaws are justified and the Marshal is driven less by righteousness and more by the desperation of the chase.
- The Lobster
Behold, Yorgos Lanthimos’ version of a love story, one whose humanism is wrapped in an extreme allegory, where canine slaughter and eye-gouging are commonplace, where basic emotion has been replaced with a bottom line, and the simplest act of humanity is treated as a crime. Coldness and sterility are constructs in Lanthimos’ films, but never the purposes. Here we are presented with a world where politeness is unforgiving and where “mating” is mutually exclusive with “love” – well, in some social circles, we live in that world now. There’s just no retreat in which we risk being turned into an animal if we don’t pair off. But we’ll get there sooner or later – never underestimate the potential depths of Mike Pence’s agenda.
One of two films on this list whose position may have suffered by only having seen it a single time. I have a feeling Barry Jenkins’ daring and beautiful exploration of identity, shifting and veiling amid an environment designed to subjugate, is resonant and powerful in ways that will only deepen over time. What’s abundantly clear immediately, however, is the tragedy of a life never fully lived to its fullest, the melancholy of love that could’ve been, and the hope that, at any moment, one can realize it’s not too late.
No film has ever so clearly and concisely distilled the systematic oppression of black people in America, full stop. Ava Duvernay’s galling film is functionally a talking-head doc, but oh how illuminating those heads talk, with the authority of understanding a system designed to discriminate, to quell, to conquer an entire race. In a year where the broad display of diversity in film was inspiring, here is a sobering presentation of how cyclical, bloody, and continuous the fight for said diversity truly is. It’s powerful, and it’s terrible. Resist.
- Southside with You
Richard Tanne’s film made me cry throughout…and I saw it more than three months before the election, when President Obama’s legacy was being cradled by Hillary Clinton’s then-double digit polling lead. Its power lies in its gorgeous simplicity, a day-in-the-life of the most extraordinary couple this country has ever had the privilege of calling “President” and “First Lady,” but only planting the smallest seeds of their eventual rise into the public consciousness. Instead, this is a small humanist love story about two people who, over the course of one elegiac day in Chicago, gently argue ideas and ideals, expose their passions, share their souls…and take a break for some ice cream. This serene and modest tale, projected onto the context of this country’s eight years of Obama’s presidency, makes its impact extraordinary. How grateful I am to him, and to her, and to this film.
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
It was hard to resist the symmetry of having the movie with “10” in the title also hold the number 10 slot on the list, but I’ll have to settle for the quaintness of sequential ordering, for first-time director Dan Trachtenberg’s film (with screenplay contributions from Damien Chazelle, whose name might pop up again later on this list) is a genre-bending masterpiece, one that has stood the test of time since opening last February. Is it a prequel to the 2008 found footage monster movie? The correct answer is “who cares,” since this film is frankly even more fab as a standalone piece, one that fuses horror with the white knuckler, then adds a layer of sci-fi, with an exhilarating tete-a-tete between John Goodman’s classic unreadable baddie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s endlessly resourceful kick-ass heroine as the through-line. I called it “totally freaking awesome” 11 months ago, and it still is now.
…and here’s the other film whose standing will grow with time. Martin Scorsese’s film is, without any hyperbole, the most challenging and powerful distillation of faith we’ve ever seen. Its endless nuances, its purposeful gray, its questions without answers, continue to probe the psyche long after the images stop flickering. As a filmmaker and as a man, Scorsese has always been compelled by the nature of faith, the oppression of formalized religion, the piety of a life dedicated to embodying and representing God, the influence of human vices that kept him from entering the priesthood, and the weight of guilt that results from that decision. In Silence, all of those themes are writ large, though quiet, an intimate orchestration of faith in all its forms and in all its consequences. Scorsese presents us with two unlikely sides of the same coin: the longsuffering Jesuit priests who occupy a foreign land to spread their religion, and the opposing rebel forces of said foreign land, who reject their religion and snuff it out violently. Both sides see only one answer, and both sides inflict pain on the other. And so the perennial question remains: can one be true to his or her own beliefs without hurting, or judging, others? What is the meaning of “God” in one part of the world versus another, and how does one define “truth” from one soul to another? Is there an absolute? Silence questions nothing more substantial than the very essence of being, and we’ll be pondering it for time immemorial.
In all honesty, there’s no more relevant 2016 film than Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s stomach-churning documentary, which redefines the term “All-Access” as it dives unflinchingly into Anthony Weiner’s disastrous 2013 New York mayoral campaign. It’s an odyssey that dripped in irony when it released last May, and took on sickening new resonance in the wake of James Comey’s reckless letter to Congress regarding Hillary Clinton’s private email server 10 days before the presidential election, precipitated by emails connected to an investigation of Weiner. There is no more eternally cursed – and more demonstrably stupid – individual in modern American political history than Anthony Weiner, and as if you needed any further proof, consider the fact that he granted these filmmakers access to this nightmare. Weiner is an accidental masterpiece of catastrophic history, the effects of which we will be reeling from for lord knows how long.
A film about what connects us and divides us, about the words that can erect walls or build bridges. There is no more pertinent film for the Trump era than Denis Villeneuve’s masterful picture – part steely sci-fi polemic, part sneakily emotional character study – that ponders our ephemeral human ties, the institutional forces that would sooner peddle fear than foster unity, and the power of language to both isolate us and reveal our common ground. We are living this film’s themes right at this very moment, and we can only hope disaster isn’t a predestined conclusion.
- 20th Century Women
Perhaps the year’s most extraordinary screenplay, lyrical and meandering, completely anti-narrative, all about people and character. About living in a specific point in time but existing outside of it – thinking back, looking ahead, feeling a moment, for life is transient. The crushing, wondrous, open-ended experience that we refer to as “coming of age” doesn’t always yield clearer answers to life’s burning questions. The collective influence of the family that surrounds us – whether that family is connected by blood or not – is the mold that forms who we become. Hopefully that family includes some defiant, mysterious, complicated, endlessly wise women…and hopefully we’re smart enough to pay close attention.
The poetry of ordinary life, under the rigors of redundancy but touched with whimsy. A film of miraculous gentility, open to the wealth of humanity that surrounds us, as intrigued by the fleeting connections of seeming insignificance as the relationships to which we dedicate our lives. There is a similar ebb-and-flow to any of writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s films, but never before have the rhythms been so fluid, so graceful, so pure.
- The Handmaiden
Chan-wook Park is a master of the Korean fairytale, and here is his most defiant work, a period epic of such daring that its implications bring tears to the eyes – especially in the wake of current political events. Its design is flawlessly gorgeous, a cascade of patterned fabrics and dazzling light. That’s the stunning backdrop against which plays out a twisting yarn of immense personal intrigue, one double-cross undercut by another, drama so rich it could easily swerve into soap opera if not for Park’s inimitably pristine touch, balancing the juiciness with the humanity of gut-wrenching need and desire. But above all else, The Handmaiden is a love story, equal parts pure and transgressive, always lurking just beneath the surface of each onscreen action. When it blooms with a sublime flourish, there isn’t much from 2016 that can match its subversive power.
- La La Land
One could call it the “anti-Whiplash,” but in fact that would be false. Damien Chazelle makes movies from his heart and his gut, about the lengths we will go to achieve our dreams and the personal consequences we suffer as a result of the pursuit. That is what La La Land is truly about, even within this unimaginable formal wrapping paper. The hating hoards have swarmed, the inevitable result of the film’s rightful status as an Oscar powerhouse. But any negativity is merely an overreaction to the fact that what Chazelle has accomplished is seismic, a transcendent fusion of classical and modern, a film that is at once fully reverent and wholly unique. The common charge is that the film is lightweight, the bright, happy movie to distract us from 2016’s weighty awfulness – but let’s not confuse “joyous” with “light.” Consider the title, “La La Land,” a reference to the fantastical dream world that we all aspire to – maybe we even taste it for a few precious moments. But it is fleeting, unsustainable. We are flawed, we are selfish, we are human. Eventually the veil of the dream world is lifted, and we’re left to navigate a path for ourselves on the uncertain terrain of reality. You damn well better sing out loud along the way.
Beyond words, crying out in streams of visual and aural emotion. A film of such innumerable, delicate nuances all layered atop each other that it’s a wonder the enterprise doesn’t collapse. Yet this carefully controlled chaos never waivers, elevating itself – and, with it, the viewer – onto a plane of lilting, nightmarish intensity and never relinquishing its spell. Pablo Larrain’s film is a menagerie of contradictory emotions: inner turmoil against projected strength, all-consuming grief countered with righteous anger, utter despair matched with stalwart resolve. Such is this portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, not a biopic as much as a snapshot, though one that transports us to at least five different points on the historic timeline. In the wake of her husband’s assassination, Jackie made it her mission to ensure his legacy was protected and, indeed, elevated for all of history. Hers was a chase to preserve dignity, to solidify respect, to unify a country by snatching reverence from the chaotic clutches of mourning – even as her own enormous personal grief festered. Jackie, as complex a cinematic masterwork as you’ll ever see, is many things: an emotional horror show, an incisive account of the turning gears of the American political machinery, a meditation on the images we project publicly versus the fears we suffer in private. The inspired fusion of these themes, embodied by Natalie Portman’s brilliant performance, scored with Mica Levi’s broken sonic chords, and projected onto a warped dreamscape by Larrain, is what makes Jackie the best film of 2016.