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 of 2016 – Personal Ballot

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BEST PICTURE
13th
20th Century Women
American Honey
Arrival
A Bigger Splash
The Fits
Jackie
Krisha
Little Men
Moonlight

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BEST DIRECTOR
Andrea Arnold – American Honey
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Pablo Larraín – Jackie
Mike Mills – 20th Century Women
Denis Villeneuve – Arrival

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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…

Continue reading “Best Actress of 2016”

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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Best Supporting Actor of 2016

Best Supporting Actor is often the least exciting acting category for yours truly, but that was not the case this year! Last year’s winner was dance machine Oscar Isaac from Ex Machina, and maybe the only one from my lineup last year that I feel as passionately as I do for the five on this year’s ballot. Those who almost made it: Billy Crudup’s understated sadness in 20th Century Women, Issey Ogata’s Silence slyness, Michael Barbieri’s funny and touching take in Little Men, and Craig Robinson’s charismatic dad in Morris From America. Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders also nearly made my ballot as well for his middle chapter despair, but four slots to one film is a bit excessive.

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Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
His nurturing is instinctive and impulsive, and you see it enacted to more than towards Chiron. Ali allows the more complicated implications to take him by surprise. His final scene is a masterclass in calculation, as Chiron’s questioning puts his compassion and guilt center stage until the shame overcomes him.

Tom Bennett – Love and Friendship
The smarts it takes to play someone so dumb. Bennett breaks up the sameness of Love and Friendship‘s humor while finding his own variety to his Sir James punchy moments. Still the actor defines him not by his doltishness, but by his delight in all things and by his backpedaling reflexes.

Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!
Not just all kooky spaghetti lassos and false teeth, Ehrenreich is hilarious as a young star both smarter than dumber than you expect him to be depending on the moment. Would that it were so simple, he also walked away with a catchphrase. A simmering rage and loyalty make him more than a caricature.

André Holland – Moonlight
Like Ali in the film’s first third, Holland reminds you that the world outside of Chiron is as complex as our hero. Kevin has his own history too, and Holland’s ease and wandering eye bring our understanding of him full circle. He has the prowess to dismantle both Trevante Rhodes’s “Black” and the audience, but he’s just as shaken himself.

Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight
How does Rhodes carry a lifetime of baggage so seamlessly to the pain we’ve already seen from two other younger actors? Chiron is trapped by his history, but Rhodes is most vulnerable at the question of the future. A study in black masculinity elegantly wrought with heart-bursting specificity.

And the Winner is…

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