Much as I hate to bring such a stunning film year to a close, there’s a small pleasure in being able to move on to what 2017 has to offer. And finally here we are: my Top Ten of 2016!
Well, and then some. With so much quality to choose from, it seems rude to only limit it to ten. Okay, I’m lying, I just can’t stomach shutting out a few films completely. And it’s worth considering that the entire lineup could shift with time – especially the film right outside this list, Martin Scorsese’s hard-to-pin-down Silence. Here are my top fifteen films of 2016:
15. La La Land
A vibrant meditation on longing both backwards and forwards, dreams and regret. Likewise the film looks back on cinema history while being a modern take on genre. While La La Land recalls the films that inspired it, that idealization is a smart reflection of how its central lovers long for only the perfect, uncompromised version of their passions. Buoyant and beautiful, its feet are firmly on the ground while its head is in the stars.
More than just a stunning performance by Sonia Braga, Aquarius is an enraged living thread from the past to the present that demands a just future. No one person’s story is theirs alone, witnessed in the film’s eyes reaching beyond the protagonist into her family and community – her struggles being that of a country entire. It moves like the waves of the ocean that Braga emerges from.
13. The Witch
Religious fundamentalism, sexual repression, and the unknown make a chilling devil’s playground for Robert Eggers’s sterling debut. What makes the horror all the more potent is the family tragedy at the center that stirs genuine emotion. It gets under your skin and envelops your brain, like a demon distracting you with a knife while it slips a noose around your neck. *insert “live deliciously” joke*
12. The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos’s satire on social cues and institutions was my most revisited film of 2016, sticky in its minor flaws and frustrations but immediately absorbing. Every laugh comes with two cringes, but the film isn’t without its humanity (even if it comes with two cruelties). With the year’s best ensemble (special kudos to Rachel Weisz’s battering ram narration), The Lobster is an excellent choice.
11. The Handmaiden
Part Merchant Ivory romance, part kinky potboiler, this shapeshifter was more thrilling than anything at the multiplex this year. Graced with a lead performance by Min-hee Kim as slippery as the film itself, the film is packed with layered genius throughout. Not your father’s costume drama (unless it’s the one hidden in his sock drawer) – refreshingly subversive and calmly twisted, The Handmaiden wraps you up in its tentacles until you squeal in delight. It clawed and scraped and tooth-grinded its way to my top ten, but alas
Okay, but onto my real Top Ten…
10. A Bigger Splash
Ralph Fiennes’s dance moves will come to your emotional rescue. Just like the delicious and loin-seizing performances of the ensemble, this one is deceptive in how it hides an immoral underbelly with luxurious objectification. Intuitively shot and sensually edited, every element serves Splash‘s portrait of glamorous excess, the appeal of the profane. Sex sells, but it also willfully distracts.
The only thing more claustrophobic than the tense family home Krisha returns to is her own head space – and Trey Edward Shults makes putting you in both battlegrounds a nerve-fraying experience. With exhausting sound design and isolating cinematography, Shults informs star Krisha Fairchild’s already painful portrayal. A psychological horror film where the killer is the protagonist’s impulse to play the victim, Shults has delivered one hell of a debut about family and addiction.
8. The Fits
You’d never know that this genius film about a tomboy joining a dance crew was so tiny thanks to its wholly immersive sound design and crescendo visuals. Even better is the film’s potential for interpretation – with gender, femininity, and race all at play here, you can bet the person next to you has a different take. In a year not hurting for explosive directorial debuts, you damn well better remember Anna Rose Holmer’s name.
7. Little Men
“You can tell me, you know? If you like someone.” Like Aquarius, real estate makes this gem infinitely more complicated, but so does its unspoken but obvious queer sensibility. Humanity is the recurring theme of this Best Of list, but no where is it more present than here in Ira Sachs’s touching observation on communication breakdowns. Only with Sachs can this story have no villains and no easy answers.
The power in Ava DuVernay’s documentary doesn’t lie just in its impassioned delivery, but especially in its succinct and conclusive connecting of American slavery to the current state of mass incarceration. A “talking head”interview structure doesn’t diminish its impact, with constant surprises and illuminating nuances maintaining the urgency of the whole. DuVernay’s style is agile, propulsively gaining momentum over history like a movement coming to a tipping point.
Pablo Larraín’s character study of first lady Jackie Kennedy is both a pageant and a funeral, a narrative about our elemental need to be seen and heard and also how grief makes us our most visible. As distancing and exaggerated as mourning itself, this is one confrontation film. In roughly ninety-ish minutes, it gets in, gets out, and gets you twisted up – an expansive vision all more impactful for its brevity.
Denis Villeneuve’s timely science fiction mind-bender is maybe the high-wire act of the year; grief, communication, time, and hope all colliding into one profound package. Its complex editing and evolving themes are brought to the screen with clarity, knowing exactly when to reveal itself without losing the audience. As ever, Villeneuve’s production team is harmonized, delivering an experience as intellectual as it is spiritual. Cinematographer Bradford Young’s most inviting work yet, and that’s quite a benchmark.
Is there any element of this film that doesn’t burn with specificity? Of place, of experience, of very specific pain? All of that context makes Barry Jenkins’s triptych heartbreakingly intimate and massive, a work of a true visionary. To confuse the journey of Chiron’s sexual self-actualization as universal is to diminish Moonlight‘s power – a rare cinematic look at black male queerness that Jenkins and his team render with sonic and visual virtuosity. “Who is you, Chiron?” is the most loaded and simplest question all at once, just like the film.
2. American Honey
There’s a wild, wild whisper blowing in this film. Andrea Arnold crafts Honey with the lightest touch and exacting precision, making for a delicate and sprawling haze of a road movie. It bursts and breathes with the hope of youth, a meditation on the insidious fallacies of the American Dream freezing the bottom of the economic food chain in place. That it can condemn the system but define itself by its compassion is its strongest asset. Bruised and bruising, Honey is a graceful miracle of a film.
1. 20th Century Women
Mike Mills’s third film lives in the moment just as it slips through your fingers. Like the hindsight of memory, each moment lives both as it was experienced and how time has changed what we thought we knew. The very embodiment of Annette Being’s soon-infamous “Yes. And No.” line, the film and its inhabitants are not easily reduced – “You don’t know what I’m feeling” and yet we so think we do. A work of profound empathy and human curiosity, 20th Century Women is a warm embrace of a movie that spares the sentimental in favor of real, messy, complicated people.
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