It is April Fools Day, so why am I writing my Top 10 for 2016 now? Apparently, my roommate thought it was a funny prank to change all the dates on my planner in order to make me think that it was still 2016. So I thought I had plenty of time to write this down in a relevant manner. In hindsight, it was weird that the Oscars happened in December, but that’s what I get for not paying attention. Sadly, this rush job has forced me to skip a couple films. Films like Cameraperson, The Love Witch, Manchester By The Sea, Certain Women, 20th Century Women, OJ: Made in America and The Greasy Strangler certainly sound brilliant enough to land on this list; there is only so much time for watching movies.
10. Love & Friendship
One of the two summer films that maintained my interest, Love & Friendship is a sly and uncomplicated Jane Austen romantic-comedy boosted by two outstanding and underrated performances. Kate Bekinsale is unexpectedly hilarious as the deceptive widow Lady Susan. Bekinsale portrays her as a playful and unsinkable charmer who quips her way through suitors and disapproving family members to get what ever she wants. Even better is Tom Bennett, whose performance as the blissfully dim Sir James Martin is simply beyond words. If nothing else, the world would be a better place if people looked at the world the same way Sir Martin looks at peas.
In order for a documentary to find a sense of emotional truth, it sometimes needs to go beyond the confines of stock footage. Tower is one of the finest examples of this process. The film is a study about the 1966 UT Tower shooting that reenacts the attack through rotoscope animation that is formally realistic but also bright, abstract, and as colorful as Andy Warhol’s pop art. The film could have easily been a wrongheaded and garish mess yet the animation is it never sanitizes the tragedy of the event but is engrossing the viewer into the mindsets of the people who have witnessed and survived the event with great delicacy.
8. The Fits
It is amazing to see how much a film can accomplish in seventy minutes and a strong hook. The Fits is a children’s drama about an 11 year-old tomboy who decides to try out for an all-girl dance squad; however, as soon as she joins every girl mysteriously starts succumbing to seizures. Is there something in the water? Is it ghosts? Maybe it does not matter. Toni and her friends fear the seizures, initially, yet they grow to accept the inevitable. It is a brilliant little debut for lead actress Royalty Hightower who at 9 years olds handles the emotionally complex mix of fear and acceptance with surprising nuance. She is a perfect anchor for director Anna Rose Holmer’s storytelling style, which progressively moves from quiet to surreal at a disquieting pace. The Fits is like an epiphany in a dream.
7. Hunt For The Wilderpeople
Of all the superheroes that popped in an out of summer 2016, none were more gangster than Ricky Baker and Uncle Hec. Sure Ricky and Hec are just a pair of bumbling outlaws who they never come close to saving the planet but their personal triumphs are far more inspiring than anything Batman or Captain America have achieved. Their travels across the New Zealand bush show them finding a greater sense of self worth and love for the world. Without pretention or cynicism, the film shows that the world is not an obstacle or a fight stage but a place of discovery that must appreciated.
The Film is also funny as hell. Like a Wes Anderson or an Edgar Wright film, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a giddy and visual rich comedy yet director Taika Waititi makes it feel completely new with morbid wit and a mad sense of spontaneity that even his influences have trouble doing naturally. Furthermore, Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are just hilarious together as the film’s dynamic duo. They should star in one of those superhero shows, or True Detective. (Note: am I being too obvious Disney?)
6. La La Land
Who knew that a lovely Hollywood musical about naïve Hollywood dreamers would cause so much turmoil amongst film buffs? From MTV to Slavoj Zizek, La La Land has been under the critical knife so frequently that the film almost looks like an unrecognizable corpse. It is easy to see why, since the film is both so hyperbolically in love with Hollywood yet so apprehensive about the main character’s goals. Sure Sebastian and Mia (played with blissfully by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) love classic jazz and Hollywood cinema but the film shows that it takes more than romanticizing art to make a dream come true, if it ever does. The whole conflict between Sebastian and his friend Keith, a jazz-fusion artist, clearly alludes to a similar conflict between Bill Evans and Miles Davis. Sebastian can be like Evans and wallow in modal jazz all he wants but it is Keith that shows any the sense of genuine innovation. In the end, this line of applicability between passion and dread is what makes Damien Chazelle so fascinating as a director. Like Whiplash, La La Land is a deceptively portrait of blindly passionate artists who strive to achieve their goals, even if it means losing something along the way. It also helps that there is some great music along the way. La La Land is a beautiful film about art and artists; however, there was one film about art that did it one better…
Paterson is about a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. Every day Paterson wakes up with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her bulldog, drives his bus around Paterson, and writes free form observational poetry about love, life, and matchboxes in his little black journal. Meanwhile Laura is at home with her own projects—whether it be painting, music, or farmers market cupcakes—whilst the dog watches them in mild disapproval. Each day mostly sticks to the routine, nothing melodramatic happens, and it is amazing.
Like Jim Jarmusch’s previous film, Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson is an offbeat but charming portrait of a loving couple who find an escape through the creation and appreciation of each others art. Though Only Lovers Left Alive tends to rely on obvious genre beats, Paterson moves with a Zen-like focus and confidence that is downright hypnotic. Seeing Paterson and Laura wake up every morning of the week never gets old in the slightest. They are characters that work hard, live modestly, but they still find time to live their little dreams.
4. Toni Erdmann
In a year as trying as 2016, it became more vital than ever to find humor within the ennui. Dads, infamous for their puns and practical jokes, are supreme cinematic fodder but rarely does a film capture the source of that humor like Toni Erdmann, and it is not likely to ever be topped. Toni Erdmann may be the ultimate ode to dad jokes but it is also an emotionally complex story about a man trying to reconnect with his a daughter that is personal and weirdly epic. Toni Erdmann somehow evolves into a story about aging, family, and finding one’s relevance in an ever-globalizing world, which invites the audience to laugh at with nihilistic glee. The fact that director Maren Ade somehow made this nearly three hour-long German comedy seem too short is a feat onto itself. The film is like an absurd hurricane that one has to see to comprehend its magnitude.
3. The Witch
This film has haunted me for over a year. The premise of The Witch is so simple—a pilgrim family living in a cabin in the woods haunted by witches—yet the film effortlessly reaches for themes of blind faith and trust and grinds them to a paste. The family is a group that is deeply religious, they have faith in God and no one else, but it is called question once a horrifying event happens. Doubt evolves into paranoia, which forces every character to face the abyss of their failures. This is most tragic for the oldest daughter Thomasin, who seems to be the most innocent, yet by the end questions whether she and her family are any better than the titular monster. This film is up there with The Virgin Spring and The Wicker Man in how effectively it removes any sense of hope in the world. It is a classic campfire story that reveals the worst in humanity.
What a decadent ride. The Handmaiden shows the director Park Chan-wook taking his maximalist, morbid, and transgressive style into creating a loose adaption of the Sarah Water’s novel The Fingersmith. The resulting the film is a delicious period piece that lacks much of Park trademark ultra-violence but is still easily the most exhilarating film of 2016. Set in the 1930s in Japanese occupied Korea, the story is a spellbinding series of sex, lies, and smutty literature about a Korean woman named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired by a conman named Count Fujiwara to pose as a maid and steal the fortune of the mad Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The con gets complicated however when Sook-hee falls in love with Lady Hideko. The film is very much like a classic Hitchcock thriller where every scene builds upon the next with great suspense, yet Park maximizes the opulence and darkness into a perverse yet epic chess game.
The Handmaiden is polarizing in how it portrays sex and sexuality, which is about as graphic as one can be in a post-Blue is The Warmest Color cinema landscape. The film is lurid enough to make clear that there is a dude behind the camera; that being said, the film also shows Park Chan-wook reflecting upon the male gaze. The world of The Handmaiden is one where comically grotesque men rule everything, and exploitation is a commodity. Men like Count Fujiwara never really see women as people with wants or needs but living dolls. Hideko and Sook-hee have no time for such pricks and they tear up the establishment in brilliantly twisted fashion. This is reflected in the performances of actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri who are clever and badass in their respective roles but also have genuine chemistry. Their relationship is portrayed as not something that they come to terms with, like a coming of age story, but a form of trust that helps them evolve into something strong enough to be defy their world. The Handmaiden is not exactly as tasteful as Carol, but in its own nutty way, it is still a magnificent and modern portrait of sex and gender politics. The Handmaiden is a delightfully mad film that is just as transgressive as it is thrilling.
“Well, what did you expect?”
Moonlight proved to be something special as soon as it began with a spiraling long-take with Juan (Mahershala Ali) leaving his car, talking to one of his dealers and then witnessing Chiron (one of many) being chased by bullies, with concern. The film almost tricks the viewer into thinking that is just another neo-realist drama, but in this beautifully concise moment, it hints that one of the most poetic and empathic cinematic experiences of the decade. Moonlight is a coming of age story in three acts—each with a different actor playing Chiron—about his personal struggles with as a gay black man in Miami during his childhood, teens, and adulthood. Each chapter plays like a unique short film with their own conflicts but through time the film reveals itself as symphonic tale about love, acceptance, and personal identity in America that is more succinct, daring, and intimate than Boyhood.
The film also has one of the best acting ensembles of this century. One could talk all day about Mahershala Ali, Naomi Harris, or Janelle Monáe who all deserves to become stars just for their ability to make the overwhelming presence of their characters be felt off-screen. However the best acting in Moonlight comes from the trio who play Chiron, or as they are called in their chapters: Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Black (Trevante Rhodes). All three of these actors had to share the emotional weight of this one confused and sad character, which only get heavier as time passes and they carry it perfect grace. This is especially true of Trevante Rhodes, who is ripped beyond belief; he plays with this intimidating stoicism that progressively wears off, revealing the frail kid that he guards with his facade. Rarely does a character this cinematically designed come off as so human.
Moonlight is one of those films where the superlatives can go on forever. Where does one find the time to write about its lush yet simple score, the gorgeous cinematography, or how director Barry Jenkins composes everything with such love and elegance? This paper is already past 2000 words, and two months late, so they will have to wait another date. In the end, Moonlight is everything that is good about cinema. Barry Jenkins created an empathy machine that invites the viewer into the psyche of its characters and does so with an embrace that very few masters have achieved.
So that’s it, right? Ah sh!t, the Honorable Mentions!
- High Rise and Green Room: While these films are not as engrossing as Hard To Be A God or Mad Max: Fury Road, they are effective as scathing commentaries of the political climate as well as being shocking, claustrophobic, and deliciously violent genre films.
- Under The Shadow and Arrival: More wonderfully done allegorical genre fiction that face death, God, and the world. Just with slightly less violence.
- Hail, Caesar! and Lemonade: Sprawling, pure, cinematic bliss.
- American Honey and The Lobster: I can’t help it if A24 killed it last year! It is a brilliant studio and I hope the company keeps it up.
- April And The Extraordinary World and My Life As A Zucchini: Down with American animation, Viva la France!
- Cemetery of Splendor and Embrace of The Serpent: These are two of most enthralling slow art house films I have seen since Under The Skin and Ida. If both films were not technically 2015 releases they would certainly be on the list.
Ok now I’m done!