How to sum up a tumultuous year in the real world? Honoring a mix of socially conscious filmmaking, and escapist entertainment.
As you know, this is not a “Best Films” list. It’s not exactly a “Favorite Films” list, either, but more of a weird hybrid where I attempt to balance my affection for a film against critical objectivity. These are the films that define 2016 for me, a year that, as the ever-circulating memes can attest, left us all feeling quite differently about the world than how we went in.
For myself, the way I thought about the films I saw evolved from “What is this film trying to say?” to “What is this film trying to say to me?”, like a religious document you study to give your life direction and meaning. The temple of the cinema can entertain, yes, but it can also challenge, inspire, and open a window into someone else’s world that you’ve never considered or explored before. Many of the year’s best films trade in a concept that seems to be fading away before our eyes: empathy. Meryl Streep said it best at last Sunday’s Golden Globes in her powerful acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille award, calling the craft of acting “a privilege and a responsibility,” because “an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like.”
That’s not just true for actors, but for writers, directors, and every person who has a hand in bringing these remarkable stories to life. The films I’m going to remember from this year weren’t necessarily the most extravagant or the most exciting or the most rawly emotional, but the films that provided an experience in understanding. Empathy.
And, as usual, there’s a lot I just haven’t gotten around to viewing: Paterson. Toni Erdmann. Hacksaw Ridge. Hidden Figures. Lion. 20th Century Women. Cameraperson. Green Room. My tastes tend to skew more populist, so there’s no telling as to whether these would have made the list, but I mention them because word is they are excellent, and worthy of your attention. I can’t exactly delay this piece indefinitely.
First, the honorable mentions, in order of how close they came to making the final list:
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople. An unfailingly charming film I caught just last week after seeing it on Tyler’s list. Julian Dennison and Sam Neill play a problem child and his foster uncle, respectively, and the targets of a months-long search party in the New Zealand bush. Full of writer-director Taika Waititi’s trademark oddball humor (and Wes Andersonian music choices), but also a lot of heart. I recommend it to literally everyone.
- Hell or High Water. As successful as David Mackenzie’s film is as a “modern Western,” it’s even better in its portrayal of the rural West and the economic vise many of its residents are in. Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and especially Chris Pine draw their characters (a lawman chasing down a pair of bank robber brothers) in three dimensions, and the film features one of the more perfectly calibrated endings of the year. (My Review)
- Fences. This long-awaited adaptation of the seminal August Wilson play has two major things going for it, and they’re named Denzel Washington (who also directed), and Viola Davis. They’re incredible, as they should be, having both won Tonys on Broadway for the roles. But there’s nothing like the experience of watching an audience turn against Denzel in real time. See it with a crowd, if you still can. (Chase’s Review)
- La La Land. There wasn’t a film I went back and forth on more, and now that it’s poised to win Best Picture at the Oscars, that hasn’t gotten easier. It’s undeniably gorgeous, the music is infectious, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are lovely, and it’s just a classy, old-fashioned time at the movies. But the undergraduate-level philosophizing belies a hollow core. That I wanted so badly to love it, and didn’t, keeps it off the list. (My Review)
- Manchester By the Sea. It’s a very good film, and it’s going to pick up a few Oscars. Casey Affleck gives a career-best performance. But man, is it a heavy watch, especially if you have young kids — and Kenneth Lonergan’s script doesn’t give you much to hold on to. Rachel loved it, Chase called it “grief porn,” and I’m somewhere in between: applauding the craft on display, but left slightly cold, waiting for a catharsis that never comes.
The Worst Film I Saw in 2016: Tough call at the end between the execrable Gods of Egypt and the mind-numbing Batman v. Superman, but one of those films at least knew what it was. The other was perhaps the most wildly miscalculated, aggressively pretentious, interminably dull blockbuster of modern times. Dawn of Justice wins…er, loses. (Brian’s Review)
And now the top ten:
10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Director: Gareth Edwards
Look, I make no apologies for this. As we discussed in our roundtable, Rogue One has its flaws — a rocky first act, a couple of questionable performances, a polarizing use of CGI characters, etc. But if I’m only going to make room for one franchise tentpole (over Captain America: Civil War, a film that I unabashedly loved even as it fades from memory), I only need to make the case, really, for R1‘s glorious final 20 minutes, a textbook example in “sticking the landing” that delivers brilliant action setpieces, emotional deaths, and [kisses fingers like an Italian chef] dovetails so perfectly into A New Hope that I wanted my theater experience to just keep going. I loved the spunky Felicity Jones, Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, and Donnie Yen’s “Zatoichi Jedi.” I loved how it proves that this sandbox is big enough for other filmmakers, in other genres, telling unconnected stories, to play in. It was just a blast. (Brian’s Review)
9. Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
From my review: Coen films have always functioned on multiple levels — stylistically, thematically, allegorically — but they have rarely done it as elegantly as they have here, infusing what could just be a goofy lark (and palate cleanser after a run of more “serious” films) with layers of meaning that will reward repeat viewing. Caesar is a love letter to the glory of Hollywood’s Golden Age, back when it lived up to its nickname “The Dream Factory”; it’s a sly undercutting of the self-righteousness that plagues both sides of the political aisle; most interestingly, it’s a genuine passion play — the next passage in the Coens’ ongoing conversation about faith and finding your place in the world. Josh Brolin is delightful as the “fixer” Eddie Mannix, George Clooney is having a ball as his latest Coen Idiot, and Alden Ehrenreich has a star-making turn as the drawling cowboy actor who lands one of the funniest scenes in any film all year. And as homages go, I’d put “No Dames” over anything from La La Land.
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Call it “Beauty in the Fracture”: Pablo Larraín’s polarizing not-a-biopic is an unsettling portrayal of American mythmaking, wrapped around the best performance of the year. (I’d also suggest it’s a more fascinating portrayal of grief than Manchester By the Sea.) Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy is more than just the breathy voice, regal bearing, and pillbox hats — she’s diamond-hard on the outside, determined to have her way in both her husband’s funeral arrangements and in how the story is told by Billy Crudup’s Time reporter. Inside, however, she’s hanging together by the thinnest thread, trying to wrest her chosen reality (putting herself back in the narrative, to borrow a phrase) into existence through sheer force of will; the scene where the camera holds on her blood-streaked, quivering face in the Air Force One mirror is stunning. Mica Levi’s score is like Haydn composing a horror film; Sebastián Sepúlveda’s non-linear editing is masterful. Just bold filmmaking, all around.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
From my review: What’s fascinating, and most successful, about Arrival is its subtext, and the narrative shell game that Villeneuve (with Eric Heisserer’s screenplay, adapted from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) is playing. There are no sequences of mayhem, no bombast. There are stretches that are almost Malick-ian in their soft-focus beauty, thanks to gifted cinematographer Bradford Young. It’s a film that showcases quiet, and thinking, and thinking about thinking. Ultimately, it’s about communication, and how we break down those barriers to a higher understanding. It leads to a late reveal that is brilliant not for how it pulls the rug on its audience (it doesn’t, not exactly), but for how it illuminates everything that came before. As Louise, Amy Adams gives a masterclass in restraint, internalizing the weight suddenly placed upon her (communicating with humanity’s first alien visitors) alongside the grief she’s already carrying. Villeneuve is one of the hottest directors currently working, and with good reason.
6. The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
This is a deeply strange film, almost aggressively so, and not for everyone. But if you can get onto Yorgos Lanthimos’s bizarre wavelength (in his first English-language film), I believe you will be richly rewarded. Colin Farrell is fantastic as a man told he has six weeks to find a new partner, or he’ll be turned into an animal — this is just the opening pitch for The Lobster, and the ensuing twists and turns will take even the most seasoned viewer by surprise. But underneath the scabby black comedy are clever observations about love in the modern age, societal norms, and the desperation of loneliness (“Why do you think the targets are shaped like single people?”) What does it mean to be “compatible?” How far are we willing to go to be happy, and why are we obligated to pretend we are anyway? Also features dryly funny turns from Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw. (Chase’s Review)
5A. Zootopia / 5B. Moana
Directed by Byron Howard & Rich Moore / John Musker & Ron Clements
I know this one’s a cheat, but I couldn’t decide which Mouse House offering to choose. (Disney’s had an all-time year, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Dory considered.) I think Zootopia (My Review) is the better film, or at least the more timely, culturally necessary film — though you have to wonder months after release how many adults really got the message. Without the subtext, it’s a breezy California noir with animals. With, it’s a subversive treatise on race and class harmony. Moana (My Review) I enjoy even more — it’s a virtually perfect distillation of what “Disney Princess” movies can be, with a winning empowerment narrative and instantly memorable songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i. (Also, because it can’t be said enough, Jemaine Clement as David Bowie as a giant glam-rock crab!) Both films boast gorgeous animation, endearing characters, and witty action sequences. And repeat plays on the home theater won’t make me nearly as sick of them as I already am of Frozen.
4. Sing Street
Directed by John Carney
If I’m taking one 2016 film to a desert island, Sing Street is the one. I love Sing Street. I don’t even particularly love 80s New Wave music, but this film gave me so much joy in its depiction of youthful spontaneity, naive creativity, and working-class Irish determination, I fell hard for it anyway. The third of a thematic trilogy from Once writer-director John Carney, Sing Street boasts an earwormy original soundtrack (check out “Up” and fist-pumper “Drive It Like You Stole It”) and a set of refreshingly casual teenage performances. As Conor, who channels the anxiety of his parents’ pending divorce into his new “Futurist” band (formed, like many bands, to impress a girl), Ferdia Walsh-Peelo oozes raw talent and charisma. But it’s Jack Reynor, as the older brother who takes Conor under his musical wing and pushes him to take the risks that he never could, that provides Sing Street its beating heart and its poignant coda. It’s on Netflix. You have no excuse. (My Review)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
In the context of Oscar Season, Moonlight is the film on this list that has the best chance of winning Best Picture, so I’ll be putting my support behind it even though the next two had a greater impact on me. Anyway, forget about that. Maybe you don’t care about awards. Why should you see this film about a young, gay, black man in Miami coming of age? Moonlight uses its striking three part structure (spending roughly a few days with Chiron first as a young boy, then as a frustrated teenager, then as an adult who has reinvented himself) to tell an intimate story about identity; each act is its own “slice of life” drama, self-contained to a point, but when you step back and look at Moonlight as a whole its universality becomes even more apparent. I can’t really do it justice in a single paragraph, because it’s not about plot — Moonlight is experiential. And I certainly can’t forgot Mahershala Ali, your locked-in Supporting Actor winner, who finds something wrenchingly unexpected inside his drug dealer-turned-accidental mentor figure in only a handful of scenes. (Chase’s Review)
Directed by Ava DuVernay
From my review: Approached with the opportunity to make a documentary on any subject she chose, the multitasking Ava DuVernay took a deep dive into the prison-industrial complex, and the results are searing. In one sense, the raw facts speak for themselves, the statistics building on each other like cinderblocks. The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. 40% of those prisoners are black. 1 in 3 black men will spend time behind bars. And why? To answer, DuVernay does the impossible: drawing a straight line from slavery to Jim Crow to the War on Drugs to Black Lives Matter with intellectual rigor and righteous anger. The scope and breadth would be disorienting without DuVernay’s keen eye for pacing, detail, the right music cue, and the right devastating sound bite. 13th comes as close to “required viewing” as anything ever has. It needs to be seen, absorbed, and discussed by everyone you know, and as soon as possible.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
It took 30 years for Scorsese to bring Shūsaku Endō’s seminal novel of faith and doubt to the screen, and I can finally report that the wait was worth it — Silence is a masterpiece. Andrew Garfield, who has spent more of 2016 suffering on screen than any actor in recent memory, plays Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest who travels from Portugal to a dangerous Japan to find out what happened to his missing mentor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Where the vast majority of “spiritual” films deal in cheap platitudes and fake persecution complexes, Silence is a harrowing account of the real thing; yet, it’s staged with almost superhuman restraint, more in line with Scorsese’s Kundun than the inflammatory (for its time) The Last Temptation of Christ, leaving its audience to uncomfortably wrestle with unanswerable questions. When Christians suffer, why does God seem silent? Is renouncing your faith to save the lives of others truly renouncing it? What about the arrogance of spreading a Westernized doctrine of “universal truth” in a culture that has no frame of reference for its message? Or, as exemplified by the oft-betraying, oft-repenting Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka, skittering and pitiable), is it possible to test the limits of God’s forgiveness?
While Rodrigues and his companion Garrpe (Adam Driver) find fulfillment in ministering to the poor farmers they find, he is also prepared to become a martyr, though he fears the suffering that may precede it. Yet what Nagasaki Inspector Inoue (played with reptilian cleverness by Issei Ogata, perhaps the most distinctive antagonist since Hans Landa) has in mind will shatter Rodrigues’ very definition of what it means to be a Christ follower. The best thing about the many discussions that take place in the film is that neither party is entirely right. You must fill in the missing pieces on your own, which will prove frustrating to American Evangelicals who like being told what to think (see: God’s Not Dead, or better, don’t). But even more than a powerful and thought-provoking study in faith, Silence succeeds as a towering achievement in Scorsese’s illustrious career, evocatively photographed (I could write another paragraph just on its use of fog), somber in spirit, but fair. It met my high expectations in every way possible.