The Best Films of 2016

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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:

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) und Mia (Emma Stone)

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.

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14. Aquarius
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.

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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*

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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.

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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…

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Best Actress of 2016

There may not be better proof of an overall strong film year than the oasis of leading actress performances we’ve been given. Best Actress giveth so much that it’s exceedingly difficult to take away from the many deserving performances by whittling it down to five. Missing from my final five is Isabelle Huppert’s Elle dexterity, Kate Beckinsale’s cunning shade in Love and Friendship, Rebecca Hall’s morphing intensity in Christine, the evasion of Krisha‘s addict Krisha Fairchild, and the deception of Min-hee Kim in The Handmaiden.

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Amy Adams – Arrival
Consider the degree of difficulty that Adams makes look easy: the believability and coherence of Arrival‘s time-shifting twist (which only plays better on a second viewing). She’s its emotional and intellectual compass, without sacrificing either. The empathy and wonder in her face is transfixing.

Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
“Yes and no.” A performance of dualities and contradictions, as unknowable yet familiar to the audience as a parent to a child. There’s seldom a beat she doesn’t surprise, always remarkably underplaying emotion and humor. Reveals Dorothea even though Dorothea is evasive about revealing herself.

Sonia Braga – Aquarius
Her strength, her rage, her hair! Braga carries mortality, sexuality, and history (and with simplicity) for a full-bodied, lived-in performance. She layers the past into a fraught present while being wary of the future – she invites you into all of it so you experience it with her.

Viola Davis – Fences
A complete force of nature as Davis has ever been. Doting wife is a role Rose plays, but Davis lets the cracks show in that veneer. She disarms Washington because her resentments have built up as much as his. Davis makes forgiveness both Rose’s weakness and her strength.

Natalie Portman – Jackie
The many affectations only enhance the film’s study on ego and performance, but Portman is loose and unencumbered. At once a loose canon and frozen in place by the stages of grief, you never quite know what Jackie will emerge. Even her many selves deliver different kinds of rage.

And the Winner is…

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Best Supporting Actress of 2016

And now the best acting category, the one that is both the most fun and painful to assemble: Best Supporting Actress. Olivia Colman’s dryly hilarious world-building in The Lobster is the most painful omission, but others I almost included were Dakota Johnson’s lying sexpot in A Bigger Splash, Lily Gladstone’s open-hearted minimalism in Certain Women, and Janelle Monáe’s one-two punch of Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Don’t expect much overlap between my list and tomorrow’s Oscar nominated bunch.

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Kate Dickie – The Witch
Dickie makes the horrors of The Witch all the more impactful thanks to her layered portrayal of religious zealotry and immigrant yourning. In her hands, the film turns from psychological horror to American tragedy. Quick: name a recent horror performance with this much humanity.

Paulina Garcia – Little Men
Her Leonor is maybe the most guarded of Ira Sachs’s Little ensemble, but Garcia has her filled with secrets. At once too private to share with even the audience and yet has the most clearly drawn pain. She’s a mixture of stubbornness and futility, a woman of warmth stifled into the cold.

Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
At once a quintessential Gerwig performance, but she has never been so emotionally accessible. The most outspoken of 20th Century‘s women, Gerwig’s naturalism is well used for a character that could have been its most cartoonish. Her most physically expressive performance, with dance moves that rival Ralph Fiennes.

Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Moonlight is rightfully praised for building its central character’s lifetime of pain, but Harris is just as revelatory for connecting the threads of Paula’s transition with far less material. Harris’s restraint is crucial in allowing us to see how addiction alters Paula’s true personality. Her ultimate humility is heartbreaking before she even apologizes.

Riley Keough – American Honey
The embodiment of the unfeeling corporate machine event to this crew of damaged goods. What first plays as a hard line of trust and expectation is complicated by hidden understanding and disappointment. She stifles herself in the sing-along, maybe she’s a believer herself under all that armor.

And the Winner Is…

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In Review!: “20th Century Women”

Like Beginners was inspired by Mike Mills’s relationship with his elderly gay father, his new film 20th Century Women focuses his relationship on his mother. While Beginners similarly played with editing to embody the intangibility of memory, Women exists in a beautiful haze of shapshots threaded together like we might remember a period that defined us: linear but maybe not, burdened by the perspective of the future, perhaps even a little better (or worse) than it actually was. The film is a memory play of sorts but moreso interested in the unknowability of any one person in your life, no matter how they reveal or define themselves. With omniscient details of the inner lives of the ensemble delivered in shared voice over, Mike Mills makes a film that is deeply personal for all of its inhabitants, a work about growing up from a filmmaker who has done just that with his third film.

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