Top Twenty Films of 2016

And here we are, after a week of looking at scenes, films and performances big and small, good, great and the opposite of great, we take one final look at 2016 (well, until I finish my review of Silence) by focusing in on the cream of the crop. The fact that twenty films (well, twenty-one as you shall soon see) seems woefully deficient, leaving so many undeniably worthy films on the outside looking in, shows the extent of how good film really was this previous year. It’s easy to focus on the mess that was the summer, the constant disappointment of so many major studio tent poles, the implosion of superhero and video game movies and so many other high profile negatives, but the level of quality outside the multiplexes is impossible to deny. It was a year of daring and uncompromising film, of challenging film, and of beauty in equal measure. I don’t want to leave it all behind, but here’s hoping 2017 can live up to the impossibly high standards that have been set before it.

Good luck.

To start, some Honorable Mentions: Tower, 20th Century Women , Toni Erdmann, 13th, Zootopia , The Edge of Seventeen, Things to Come, The Lobster, Love & Friendship, Hell or High Water, Queen of Katwe (and about a dozen more)

A Most Honorable of Mentions: One More Time with Feeling (directed by Andrew Dominik)

It didn’t feel right including One More Time with Feeling on my Top Twenty considering it never got an official theatrical release that would have made it eligible for awards consideration, a silly metric I use to determine what “counts” versus what “doesn’t count” in broad strokes. But considering that it would have easily made my top ten if I felt that it “counts,” it would be wrong to go through this whole article without discussing it (this, if you’re paying attention, would be the concept of “having my cake and eating it too”). Released over a handful of nights in conjunction with the release of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album Skeleton Tree, One More Time with Feeling is about the making of that album, but it’s more about Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, coming to grips with the death of their child, Arthur, who fell to his death in their hometown of Brighton in the UK in 2015. It’s clear the very act of living and breathing amongst the tragedy is labored for both of them, but the persistence of life is not so easily defeated. There’s still room for levity (look no further than the film’s opening scene, where Cave rails against the constantly malfunctioning black and white 3D camera Dominik is using to document him, forced to make the same movements over and over as they try to catch it “candidly”), and the performances of most of the songs from SKELETON TREE are mesmerizing. This was an excellent year for nonfiction film, and while ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING is likely to be lost since so few people had the chance to see it, it is worth seeking out when it comes to home video in March.

20. Loving (directed by Jeff Nichols)

The far better of Jeff Nichols’ two 2016 releases is this tender, small scale look at the couple behind the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage in the United States in the 1950’s. A two-hander with accomplished central performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the film sings precisely because of what it doesn’t show. This is a movie about two people in love. Everything else is just secondary.

19. Jackie (directed by Pablo Larrain)

The more high profile of Pablo Larrain’s two fall biopics (of a sort), this look at Jackie Kennedy in the immediate wake of her husband’s assassination not only features an engrossing and eerily accurate performance from Natalie Portman, but it uses the set up to tell a tale of fame and position and perspective and how the woman behind the man can work to shape his legacy after the most tragic of circumstances. With a powerful and often unsettling score from emerging wunderkind Mica Levi (she of Under the Skin, one of the great modern film scores) and a camera that doggedly follows Jackie everywhere she goes like paparazzi, Jackie redefines what we think about Based on True Events stories and how they can be used to transcend the form and give us a look at ourselves through the past.

18. Everybody Wants Some!! (directed by Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater goes back to his shaggy dog Dazed and Confused style with this look at a freshman in college coming to campus to move in with his baseball team, thus setting the stage for a weekend of parties and practice and maybe a little love thrown in as well. Boasts one of the most satisfying ensembles of the year, and some of the most consistent laughs as well. The heart it develops in the third act makes it essential.

17. Hidden Figures (directed by Theodore Melfi)

Hidden Figures is one of the rare cases where an Oscar Bait Biopic leans hard into that convention and comes out the better for it. Unabashed in its crowd-pleasing-ness and featuring an absolutely knock-out supporting turn by emerging acting star Janelle Monae (and, it turns out, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer are pretty good too), it tells a story that feels vital and modern (almost depressingly so with Russia acting as a Cold War villain) and never stops entertaining.

16. The Nice Guys (directed by Shane Black)

Shane Black seems like one of those guys who could write a screenplay about a kitchen sponge and it would be a laugh riot from beginning to end (and would also at least partially take place at Christmas). His 1970’s buddy cop detective caper features fantastic comic performances from two perhaps unlikely sources, grim and gruff Russell Crowe and impossibly taciturn Ryan Gosling, and they both adapt to Black’s motormouth scripting with preternatural skill. Gosling proves himself to be remarkably adept at physical comedy, and while the plot can at times feel as opaque as the Chinatowns and The Big Sleeps that serve as its inspiration, Black is so assured as both writer and director that the laughs never stop as the conspiracies spiral deeper. The LA porn industry offers the perfect sleazy backdrop for the escapades, and this is easily the most rewatchable release of 2016. Watch it early and often for best results.

15. Paterson (directed by Jim Jarmusch)

On its face, the bus driving poet seems like the perfect sort of protagonist for Jim Jarmusch. And it is, but Paterson doesn’t play out like so many of Jarmusch’s previous films. The detached cool of so many of his protagonists over the years isn’t really there in Adam Driver’s portrayal of Paterson, the guy with the same name as his town (Paterson, NJ) who drives the Paterson route of New Jersey Transit so his bus has the word PATERSON in giant letters across the front. He plays him remarkably straight and mildly; Paterson is simply a guy living his comfortable life with a wife he loves and some interest in writing poetry during his downtime but no real ambition to turn it into a career. He’s a creative person whose life isn’t predicated on that creativity. Paterson is a move of low (or really no) stakes, just a slice of life, a look in through the window at this man and his wife and his dog and his bus and his local bar. The Jarmusch quirk is there (an abnormal amount of twins cross path with Paterson on his day-to-day living), but the film isn’t predicated on that quirk the way so many of his previous films are. That was not a bad thing then, and it’s still not a bad thing now, but the even slight and almost imperceptible shift in gears makes for a wholly different yet equally satisfying experience.

14. Elle (directed by Paul Verhoeven)

Paul Verhoeven loves to play the role of provocateur, and it would be tough to think of a film more provocative than Elle, a film that begins with the rape of Isabelle Huppert’s main character and manages to ratchet up the depravity even further from there. Elle is a difficult film, one that challenges the conventions of how we as a society and as individuals respond to sexual assault, and Huppert paints her character with dimensions that surprise and shock in equal measure. It’s one of the great starring turns I’ve seen in some time, so nuanced, so able to find beauty in ugliness. This is perhaps the greatest example of 2016 being the year of “Movies I Couldn’t Recommend to my Mother,” and some will surely bristle at its subject matter (they aren’t wrong to), but it marks a staggering return to form for Verhoeven, who hasn’t felt this vital since he left Hollywood after a string of disappointments that were more often misunderstood than not. Huppert is personally responsible for two of the top five female performances of the year (her other wonderful turn, Things to Come, just missed out of the top 20), and she’s worth the price of admission alone here, thorny subject matter notwithstanding.

13. Silence (directed by Martin Scorsese)

I saw Silence less than a week ago, and I’m still mulling it over. A passion project in every sense of the term, Scorsese has been trying to make his adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel for at least twenty-six years, and now that it’s here, it was clearly worth the wait. The journey undertaken by two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) as they venture into the most hostile territory to find their mentor (Liam Neeson) who has been rumored to have cast off the faith and integrated into a Japanese culture that persecutes Christians with reckless abandon is defined by how little it plays into expectations. Sure, the Japanese are villainous, represented by a wonderfully wry Issey Ogata as the inquisitor tasked with rooting out the Christians living in villages on the outskirts of polite Japanese society, but it’s also not so cut and dry that Garfield and Driver (both wonderful; it’s so nice seeing Garfield have the freedom to do films like this again) are doing the right thing themselves. There are no easy answers in Silence, as there is nothing simple about faith and how it is felt and interpreted by different people, groups and sects. Clearly this was an intensely personal project for Scorsese to take on, and that sense permeates every frame of its two hours and forty-one minutes. Not everyone will like Silence, and its pleasures aren’t as clear cut as previous Scorsese films, but the rewards are there for those who look for them.

12. The Wailing (directed by Na Hong-jin)

One of the true oddities of 2016, this two hour thirty-six minute suspense horror thriller from South Korean director Na Hong-jin is as drenched in mood as it is in rain. Na shares the same love for mixing humor with his Grand Guignol storylines as fellow countrymen Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, and The Wailing has more than its share of hilarity despite being the story of a sleepy little village forced to contend with a two-pronged attack of gruesome murders and a mysterious sickness, and to make things worse, the two seem to be related somehow. Kwak Do-won is fantastic as the bumbling police officer in about as far over his head as he possibly could be as the rain pours down unceasingly and the entire town seems balanced on a knife’s edge. Na expertly manipulates his tone from humor to dread to horror to outright silliness, but most importantly The Wailing never feels confused or hits a wrong note. This is a strange one, one of the better examples of a great movie that might be tough to recommend, but if you’re in the mood for a near three hour Korean horror movie, you can’t do worse than The Wailing.

11. The Neon Demon (directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

To say The Neon Demon isn’t for everyone might be the understatement of the year. Nicolas Winding Refn sheds the super serious taciturn machismo of Drive and Only God Forgives to return to the sort of mischief that made Bronson such a wild ride. There’s a dividing line when it comes to The Neon Demon, and which side you fall on will ultimately determine how you respond to this movie. Some see it as the height of Winding Refn’s art-house masturbation, self-indulgent to a fault and incapable of making any sort of point about the fashion industry it seems to want to lampoon. Others will embrace the outward silliness of the experience, finding a surprising amount of humor for a Winding Refn film. I clearly fall into the latter category, taken over by Natasha Braier’s cinematography, by Cliff Martinez’s score, by Elle Fanning and Jena Malone and Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote. When I went to a promotional screening of The Neon Demon in Boston before its release, a little old lady walked out during the third act (when the depravity really begins to unfold), loudly proclaiming “this movie is for SICK PEOPLE!” I guess I’m pretty sick, it seems.

10. La La Land (directed by Damien Chazelle)

It took a second viewing for La La Land to cement itself in my mind. Damien Chazelle’s old to Old Hollywood musicals has its problems, and I’m not as effusive in my praise as some, but it is an undeniably (to me, at least) enchanting tale of dreamers and dreaming and creativity and passion and the consequences of living a life that embraces such things. Chazelle combines his love for jazz with his love for Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Jaques Demy effortlessly, and composer/songwriter Justin Hurwitz wrote some excellent earworms that can’t be shaken once they bury their way into your brain. Gosling and Stone, working together for the third time, have a wonderfully familiar and genuine chemistry together, excellent at illustrating both the good times and the bad. The world of La La Land is definitely one far removed from the real, a world of wish fulfillment and musical numbers where a jazz pianist and a barista/actress still have a shot at making their dreams come true. It’s a good world to live in, even if only for a few hours.

9. Neruda (directed by Pablo Larrain)

And here’s the second (and better) of Pablo Larrain’s 2016 “biopics,” an enchanting and energetic look at the life of Pablo Neruda in the most uncommon of ways. Dreamlike in its construction and execution, Neruda follows the Chilean poet and provocateur late in his life as a regime change makes his Communism a crime, forcing him to go on the run into rural Chile as he is pursued by a charismatic police inspector who seems straight out of a noir film. The beauty of Neruda lies in its unreality, as it becomes clear Oscar, Neruda’s antagonistic inspector, doesn’t actually exist, and is instead a product of Neruda’s imagination and thirst for a good story, giving him someone to run from. The power of Neruda’s art, the strength of his prose and poetry, is contained within Oscar, a man taken to florid narration as he chases his charge throughout the countryside. It’s such a strange and incisive way to look at Neruda as man and as myth concurrently, and Larrain’s use of visual flair to play with that sense of unreality (the use of rear projection whenever Oscar drives, the bizarre shifts of location mid-conversation) keeps you confused and off kilter until it becomes clear what’s really going on. There could be other biopics of Pablo Neruda that survey his whole life on balance, but it’s exceedingly unlikely that it would be as engaging and beautiful and fascinating as Neruda.

8. Cameraperson (directed by Kirsten Johnson)

I didn’t expect to cry during Cameraperson. Granted, I didn’t, but the number of tears I shed far exceeded my expectations of zero. This utterly unique documentary turned memoir from long time, well, cameraperson Kirsten Johnson stitches together outtakes and leftover footage from over two decades behind the camera of countless documentaries to form a travelogue collage that serves many masters yet never feels scattered. It’s a keen and fascinating look at the role of the cameraperson in a documentary, the choice between trying to simply be an impartial observer and choosing to intervene when the subject is imperiled. It’s the story of life in so many aspects, whether it’s the disappointed boxer running to his mother for support (a knockout scene that triggered the tears) or a midwife working to keep an infant breathing in a maternity ward in Nigeria. It’s so easy to forget someone is behind the camera, and it’s so brilliant the way Johnson reminds you she’s there (a cough causes the camera to shake almost imperceptibly, a hand moves some grass out of the shot), the silent artist photographing the world one project at a time. Cameraperson succeeds as a fascinating upheaval of the documentary form and a history of a life spent holding a camera, but it succeeds just as much as an emotional travelogue, allowing it to transcend its form and grasp the universal of life itself.

7. Manchester By the Sea (directed by Kenneth Lonergan)

Manchester By the Sea is a massively depressing film. It’s also rather funny, making for a fiendishly difficult balancing act for writer/director Kenneth Lonergan that he manages to deftly navigate throughout his incredibly personal and harrowing exploration of grief and how your home can be taken away from you whether you like it or not. Casey Affleck’s soon to be Oscar winning performance in the lead role has an extraordinarily high degree of difficulty; grief and depression and overwhelming anxiety are the sort of deeply internal and personal emotions that they are so easy to over-project onto the big screen, robbing them of feeling genuine. But you can see the way Lee Chambers changes when he returns to Manchester by the Sea, a ghost in the town of his birth for reasons that Lonergan eventually reveals; you can see the pressure, both internal and external, that war within himself between doing what he can for his newly orphaned nephew after the death of his brother and doing what he needs to do for himself in order to avoid being swallowed up by the demons of years past. Manchester By the Sea is a monumentally tough sit, but a monumentally rewarding one, the sort of film that shows the true potential of film to show us a part of ourselves within the part of another.

6. The Handmaiden (directed by Park Chan-wook)

It was arresting how much time I spent laughing while watching The Handmaiden. I mean, this was Park Chan-wook movie, the same guy who made the relatively humorless (though generally very good) OLDBOY and Stoker and any number of other twisted, violent, dour films. So why did the first act of The Handmaiden feel like an upstairs downstairs comedy of manners, and why was it so effective? This is the genius of Park’s newest film. It never allows you to find your feet. Whether it’s the backstab-filled labyrinthine plot, where con artists abound and the truth isn’t entirely revealed until you’re looking the other way, other the nonlinear storytelling that relishes in showing you the same scene from multiple points of view as more information comes to light, The Handmaiden is deliriously mischievous and deliriously entertaining. Bolstered by excellent performances, gorgeous cinematography and alluring production design, it’s one of the more roundly entertaining films of the year, with its two and a half hours flying by. This is a masterful piece of erotic drama, as well a surprisingly effective romance. You often won’t believe what you’re seeing, which can make for the best cinematic experiences.

5. I Am Not Your Negro (directed by Raoul Peck)

Most of the country won’t have the opportunity to see I Am Not Your Negro until next month (it begins its limited release run on February 3 after a December qualifying run in New York/LA), but I found this documentary to be the best of the triptych of high profile documentaries that look at a history of our country through the lens of the African-American experience (the others being Ava DuVernay’s 13th for Netflix and Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America, both of which are excellent in their own right). Built upon a fascinating and unconventional narration performance by Samuel L. Jackson reading an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, the film ostensibly focuses on the lives and deaths of three assassinated Civil Rights leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., but the process of doing so spans the history of the treatment of black people in a post-Civil War America. Peck’s use of film clips and footage of Baldwin’s appearances on talk shows highlights the prejudices this country was founded on clear as day, and Jackson’s hushed, raspy and beleaguered narration brings Baldwin’s words to life with fire and passion. I Am Not Your Negro is important, powerful filmmaking, and more relevant to our current worldview as each day passes.

4. Kate Plays Christine (directed by Robert Greene)

Of all the nonfiction films I saw in 2016, Kate Plays Christine was certainly the most intriguing. This story of an actress (Kate Lyn Shiel) embarking on a journey to discover how to play the role of Christine Chubbuck in a biopic about her life and eventual on-air suicide in 1974 refuses to fit into a comfortable box, morphing between a film about Chubbuck herself to a film about the cult of personality in US popular culture to a film about the acting process to a film about the problems of a blood-and-guts obsessed news cycle and seemingly everything in between. Shiel is magnetic in the starring role, straddling the line between reality and fiction (the movie she is researching Chubbuck to film does not actually exist in the real world, though scenes are shot for this film, adding to the unreality of the process) as she tries to come to grips with playing a role of a real woman without the sort of archival footage one would expect from a news journalist who worked for a TV station. Watching her change fundamentally from beginning to end as she learns more about Chubbuck and talks to friends and coworkers is powerful stuff, as is the eventual climax when she is forced to pull the trigger to get the shot for the movie, bringing the tragedy of this woman she is resurrecting into sharp relief. Robert Greene’s films always tend to play with the nature of reality in his films, and Kate Plays Christine is a masterclass in that form.

3. Kubo and the Two Strings (directed by Travis Knight)

My personal biases could probably go a long way to explaining why Kubo and the Two Strings rose to the third spot of my top twenty. I’ve been a devout lover and defender of stop motion animation since seeing Aardman projects and The Nightmare Before Christmas as a child. When Laika came onto the scene with Coraline, they revitalized a flagging art style made more redundant by the day as computer generated graphics have become the new standard. And as good as Laika has been with their three films, Kubo and the Two Strings feels like a massive step forward in art style, story and scope, a hero’s journey tale about the importance of family and of storytelling. It’s clearly the most beautiful of Laika’s films (look no further than the ship of leaves for proof of that) and the way the story reaches its conclusion is a challenge, fighting against convention and expectation and what it means to be a villain. To be the best animated film of 2016 is no small feat, but to be so good that it has to be considered among the best films of the year is a statement by Laika that they haven’t even begun to truly explore the power and possibilities of the stop motion form.

2. Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins)

It’s a tough situation to not find Moonlight at the top of my list. Of all the films in 2016, Moonlight affected me the most, even if there happened to be one film I found ever so slightly better than it at the end of the day. The story of Chiron told over three acts at three points in his life as he navigates a world and a society and a culture that doesn’t feel like his own Watching this film is such a deeply empathetic experience, the characters so well-drawn and intricate, their situations familiar and relatable, the performances so authentic. Whether it’s Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland or Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae or Ashton Sanders Jharrel Jerome or Naomie Harris or anyone else in the cast, they all astonish. Jenkins frames his story with Malickian flair, aided by James Laxton’s impressionistic camera and an arresting score from Nicholas Britell. Everyone’s talked about Moonlight and what it means and why it’s perhaps the most important film release of 2016. They’re all correct.

1. The Witch (directed by Robert Eggers)

Considering how backloaded the year has been when it comes to quality (only a quarter of this top twenty saw a release in the US prior to July), it’s impressive that The Witch, the third 2016 release I saw back in February, managed to essentially run the table and stay at number one about 147 films later since it was placed there back on February 17th. This feature debut from writer/director Robert Eggers is so confident and assured, so in command of style and tone and language that it’s shocking he didn’t have a wealth of experience behind him when mounting this project. Set in 17th century New England (its tagline refers to it as a “New England folklate”), The Witch mesmerizes with its period clothing and dialogue (Eggers researched journals and newspapers of the time to help sculpt the script), as well as its agonizing deployment of tension. It’s a horror film that doesn’t play coy with its villain, making it clear that the witch is a very real danger to this doomed family on a tiny farm in the middle of nowhere, but even taking that as gospel, the powers and capabilities of this witch are ambiguous enough to keep the developments of the story a mystery. There have been a lot of great horror films in the past few years (Under the Skin made my #1 in 2014, It Follows reached #3 in 2015) and The Witch gives all of them a run for their money. This is masterful storytelling, wonderfully acted and gorgeously shot (with a color palette evoking the silent horror greats of the 1920’s), the sort of film that not only stretches the boundaries of what is possible in the horror genre, but film in general.

And there we have it. One more year in the books. Onward and upward.