The Last ‘Best of 2016’ Movie List You’ll Ever Read
The Oscars are six days away, I guess I better get on with it…
Before I get to my “official” Top 10, one title has been excluded for consideration due to conflict of interest, but would otherwise top my list.
Mickey Keating’s 3rd feature (produced by the fabulous Jenn Wexler, a.k.a. my girlfriend) is, of course, my favorite film of the year. I’ve seen it three times in theaters — twice in 2015 on the festival circuit, and again last April on opening night — and still keep finding new, subtle things about it to love.
The story: a young woman is paid to housesit a glorious old building while its eccentric owner is away. Is the house haunted? Is she unhinged? Maybe both? Star Lauren Ashley Carter — rightly recognized as “the Audrey Hepburn of indie horror” by The Austin Chronicle, is in almost every frame of the film and is never short of mesmerizing, whether answering the telephone, putting on make-up or getting her hands dirty by…well, let’s not give away the fun.
The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, the score crawls under your skin and the editing is legit terrifying. Watch with the lights out.
And now back to our official, less personally biased top 10, in order…
Without question, the most accomplished, most moving film of 2016.
James Joyce once noted, “In the particular is the universal.” Moonlight is atop my list in no small part because it’s so breathtaking in its particular intimacies.
Moonlight is like Boyhood on a budget: it drops us into three important periods of the life in a boy who becomes a teen who becomes a man — at first bullied and confused, increasingly neglected by his crack-addicted mother and influenced by a kind-hearted, drug-dealing surrogate father. We see him harden, over time, under the pressure of a world with no use for softness, and then, perhaps, reconnecting with a lost bit of himself, at long last.
Writing that synopsis, it strikes me how easily such a story could have tipped into cliché and melodrama. Perhaps because writer/director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney are both from the Liberty City projects themselves. their knowledge — coupled with a great cast, an impeccable soundtrack, a deft use of color and Jenkins’ masterful control of tone — l gives Moonlight specificity, and that makes it universal.
Tone is a common element for the first three films on my 2016 list — four if you count Darling, and you most definitely should. Pablo Larrain’s Jackie puts us inside the experience of First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, in a way I never thought I could experience:
Your husband was just murdered; his blood is on your dress. Your life is cracked, and even if you put the pieces back together, nothing will ever be the same. Oh, and he’s the president — was the president — so your country is broken, too. History has its eye on you, so while the crushing weight of grief bears down, try to look good for the cameras. It’s only his legacy at stake.
It seems ludicrous to say that Oscar-nominated Natalie Portman is underrated, but somehow she is — and I adored her in Black Swan. In Jackie, she’s working at another level. Open and wounded when no one but us can see, calculating and brittle and angry before an eager reporter. I am excited to see Portman does next.
Special mention to Mica Levi’s score, her second feature after 2013′s Under the Skin. Can’t wait to hear what she does next, too.
Someone had the terrible idea to market The Witch as “the year’s scariest movie.” It’s not, nor is it trying to be. It is, however, among the most unsettling films of this year or any other. (Again: tone.)
The story: it’s 17th century New England. William, his wife Katherine, and their five children have been kicked out of the settlement being too religious (it seems, or perhaps just too self-righteous) and must find a way to survive on their own on the fringes of the deep, dark wood.
Before you have time to wonder if the titular witch might be metaphoric, she shows up and does something unspeakable to William and Katherine’s newborn son. Things go downhill from there, exacerbated by both outside malevolent forces and unacknowledged tensions within the family unit.
The Witch looks gorgeous, as well it should. First-time director Robert Eggers made his bones as a production and costume designer, and reportedly built an actual, working 17th century farm for the film. Even the dialogue itself was built out of scraps of things people wrote and said back then. You can feel the authenticity, which makes the family’s isolation feel that much more acute and dangerous.
O.J.: Made in America
Bob Dylan never asked “How many minutes does a film have to be, before we can call it TV?” but the answer, my friend, is probably not much more than the 467 minute runtime of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. (For comparison, that’s almost 3 hours longer than a full season of HBO’s Veep.)
It doesn’t help that it was produced by ESPN, or that it aired on that cable network less than a month after it’s Oscar-qualifying theatrical run. And yet…it was my favorite documentary in a year of many great docs (more on that later), so if wants to call itself a movie, I’ll roll with it.
2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the murders. The revived attention around the so-called “trial of the century” led to two great works of art, Edelman’s doc and FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. (One can only wonder how our present political moment will be filtered through the culture of 2018).
Rather than produce O.J. overload, the two projects complement one another — the dramatic series taking us inside the lives and hearts of key figures on both legal teams, while the doc simultaneously expands the scope and deepens the focus — showing us more about who O.J. was before, during and after, and what America was and still is, especially but not only in Los Angeles, but also in Ferguson, on Staten Island, everywhere. If it takes Edelman 8 hours to set up all details to knock us down with his larger point, well, that’s 8 hours well spent.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth was one of my favorite movies of 2010. He’s back on the list with a film that’s just as strange but far more accessible.
I love absurdism, deadpan humor, magical realism and dystopian fantasy, but I can’t recall a film that manages the trick of juggling all three at once, as The Lobster does — with an honest-to-goodness love story right there in the middle.
I’ll skip the premise — if you don’t know it, watch the trailer.
The cast is great, and Colin Farrell is a revelation, topping my previous Farrell favorite, the criminally under seen In Bruges. Lanthimos packs the film with small details that make the surreal world of The Lobster believable. The first shot packs an entire story of love, betrayal and murder (which is never revisited) into a single, long take. And its final, wrenching moments will stay with me forever.
Film critic Britt Hayes got to the heart of the filmmaker’s uncanny alchemy when she noted“Lanthimos doesn’t heighten reality to an absurd degree; he heightens the absurdity of our existing reality.” Or put another way, he doesn’t add absurdity, he just turns the heat up on reality and our own absurdity bubbles to the surface.
There’s this other movie that’s sort of a throwback to old Hollywood, with some singing and dancing in it. That movie’s fine, but don’t hold your breath, it didn’t make my list. For my money, the real love letter to Hollywood — and why the movie industry matters — came from the Coen Brothers.
Now, it wouldn’t be a Coens movie if that tender heart weren’t covered under many layers of arch cynicism, stylized references bordering on “acting” “in” “quotation” “marks” and the occasional silliness. But you don’t have to peel much of it away to see the real love they have for not just the magic of movies but also the joy in so many abandoned film genres that once ruled the box office — be they Gene Kelly musicals, Gene Autry oaters or C.B. DeMille bible epics, to name but a few recreated here.
For me, Hail, Caesar! sits perfectly between the sour cynicism of the Hollywood in Woody Allen’s misanthropic Cafe Society and the false romanticism of the ambition-for-ambition’s sake “dreamers” of La La Land who prize the warmth of the spotlight over any real human affection.
Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a civics lesson for a country in dire need of one. With a controlled but searing ferocity, the documentary lays out the case that the 13th amendment allowed the continuation of a system of oppression and control not all that from slavery: the criminal justice system. If you haven’t read your Constitution lately, here’s a refresher on the 13th, the amendment that ostensibly ended slavery:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
This one, terrible clause not just perpetuated slavery under another name but incentivized an expansion of the definition of criminality, in order to profit from the subjugation of mostly brown and black bodies, which has led to an explosion in America’s incarcerated population. In effect, through laws designed to maintain segregation, blackness itself has been criminalized.
With Jim Crow, redlining, lynching (terrorism by another name) and the like, the 13th has led to a more unequal society — and, indirectly, to leaders who lie and stoke racial, as well as religions and ethnic, divisions in order to maintain the ever-growing class divide from which they profit.
This poor summation doesn’t do justice to the full weight of the case DuVernay and her experts make, or how well they make it. 13th should be required viewing by everyone, but most of all by those who hold the power to make and enforce the law.
The Love Witch
Let’s start with the obvious: Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is a gorgeous film. Turn the sound off, re-order the scenes at random and you still can’t take your eyes off what looks like a lost Technicolor American Giallo from 1972. Biller not only wrote, edited and directed the film but also handled production design, art direction, set decoration and costuming, almost single-handedly crafting one of the best looking films of 2016.
But beneath that dazzling frosting is a rich, feminist layer cake. Elaine is a witch specializing in sex magic, who believes her path to happiness lies in finding the right man, seducing him and pleasing him in every way. On paper, she’s a patriarchy’s dream come true. But when these lustful men inevitably fall short — as they all must, as patriarchy itself is built on a lie — she gets rid of them, permanently. Poor, unfulfilled Elaine.
The Love Witch is Biller’s own magic trick, casting its spell over us with its color, its throwback ’70s sexploitation vibe and its razor-sharp message we don’t notice until the blade has slid, quietly, between our ribs and stabbed us in the heart. Metaphorically.
I, Daniel Blake
Daniel Blake has spent a lifetime working with his hands, supporting a modest but pleasant life for himself and his late wife. After a heart attack, his doctors tell him he’s not fit to return to work — yet with a simple questionnaire (and absent any input from his doctors), the government’s welfare bureau deems him too fit to qualify for disability.
He can apply for unemployment benefits, but only if he’s actively seeking work — work which, according to his doctors, he can’t accept. Caught in a catch-22, he must appeal to an unreachable “decision-maker” for relief — provided he can find a way, without income or assistance, to get by while he waits. Then Daniel meets a single mother in stuck in a similar situation and does his best to help her struggling family, even as his own situation grows worse.
Ken Loach’s drama won the Palm D’Or at Cannes but has received not much notice since then, at least outside the UK, perhaps because of the specific criticism of the British welfare bureaucracy at the heart of the story. But you don’t need much imagination to see how things can be as bad or worse for the many Daniel Blakes of this country.
Loach has been making socially conscious films about the struggles of the working and lower classes for longer than I’ve been alive. As with Jenkins and Moonlight, it’s clear Loach knows this world, these people and their struggles, and knows how to tell their particular stories in a simple yet powerful, moving and universal way.
Apologies if you’re getting whiplash. I went from a highly stylized Love Witch to a pared-down I, Daniel Blake. Now I’m going to swing back the other way with Park Chan-Wook’s sensual, sensuous The Handmaiden.
As has been the case in years prior, the 10th (really, 11th) and final spot on my list could have gone to a number of worthy films, and almost did — I began writing up another film here before realizing there’s no way I could round out 2016 without giving The Handmaiden its due. (Sorry, Elle!)
The story of The Handmaiden is…too complex to go into here, frankly. There’s a con man and his female accomplice. There’s a con man and his female accomplice. There’s a rich heiress and her controlling uncle. Some of them are Japanese occupiers; others native Koreans. Oh, ands there’s a library of dirty, dirty books.
Cons are conned, crosses are doubled, no one is quite who they pretend to be and everyone is up to something. In the end, something real is found and, through it, freedom is won.
The Handmaiden is a thriller as elegant as it is perverse. Every change in perspective brings new meaning to all that’s come before. Every twist revealed is a delight. Park Chan-Wook is at the top of his game.
Wait, don’t get up. There’s more!
First, let’s start with honorable mentions that you already know are great:
- Paul Verhoeven’s psychological thriller Elle, which features Isabelle Huppert in one of my favorite performances of the year, or maybe ever.
- Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which goes on my list of essential smart science fiction, along with Gattaca, Ex Machina, Primer and Under the Skin, to name a few.
- Sing Street, one of the most joyful films of the year. A misfit ‘80s Irish teen starts a band so he can cast the girl he likes in their highly creative music videos. From John Carney, the filmmaker behind the equally charming Once.
- Nicolas Winding Refn’s mad look at fashion, envy and unchecked ambition (kind of the anti-La La Land?), The Neon Demon.
Next, films that might have been off your radar but are well worth seeking out:
- Benjamin Dickinson’s Creative Control, a very-near-future sci-fi film about augmented reality, and the augmented lives we all want to pretend we’re living (at least on Instagram). A must-see for all my friends in media, marketing or technology.
- Elizabeth Wood’s directorial debut, White Girl, in which a New York City undergrad moves to Queens, dates her local corner drug dealer and learns first hand the limits of her privilege in both their lives.
- Taika Waititi’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a reluctant buddy comedy/coming-of-age film that’s way more fun than it has any right to be.
- Todd Solondz’s Weiner-Dog, a dark, dark comedy stringing together four tales of unhappy people, all of whom at one point own the title pup. Or, for you hard-core cineastes: Au Hasard Dachshund.
- American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s sprawling tale of wayward youth living for the moment across a vast swath of America, high and low.
- The animated documentaries Tower, which looks back on America’s first campus mass shooting in a surprisingly moving way, and Nuts!, which is the rare doc with an unreliable narrator, which fits the unreliable (Trump-like) conman at the center of its story.
- Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, which I was fortunate enough to experience as a multi-screen installation at the Park Avenue Armory but has been adapted (rather successfully, it seems) as a linear film. Either way, Cate Blanchett takes on a dozen different guises in a sequence of stunning short films, the text of each comprised of bits of famous manifestos, from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto to Jim Jarmusch’s Golden Rules of Filmmaking.
And last, because the horror genre in near and dear to my heart, here’s #4-#10 on my year’s best horror list. (The top 3 being Darling, The Witch and The Love Witch.)
- The Invitation
- Green Room
- Under the Shadow
- Train to Busan
- 10 Cloverfield Lane
Honorable mention: the “Happy Father’s Day” segment of Holidays