There were a few key themes I noticed in 2016 in film. First, justifiably, a lot of conversation emerged centered around representation in cinema. Representation is about more than just nominations to an already-dubious awards show. To me it’s about empathy, about listening to unfamiliar voices and considering unfamiliar situation. So while we may talk about representation in Moonlight, let’s not forget the sense of radical inclusion to something like Cameraperson as well.
I also noticed two sides to a similar issue. Blockbuster cinema continues to underwhelm while fresh style continues to emerge from new, confident voices painting on much smaller canvases. Consider Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, a striking debut with more verve and mystery than the entire Marvel oeuvre. And yet, as the critical community sheds some much-deserved light on these new filmmakers, we may have also turned a blind eye to remarkable work from established masters. Maybe in our haste to discover new talent we’ve taken for granted the mastery of someone like Martin Scorsese.
So please enjoy my Top 20 films of 2016 and let me know what you think in the comments.
Honorable Mentions: Mountains May Depart, Hail Caesar, My Golden Days
Regrets: Paterson, Jackie, Julietta, Things to Come
A list of all 2016 releases I’ve seen is available here.
20) Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World / Werner Herzog
Lo and Behold feels like the better of two Herzog documentaries released this yet, despite the film’s tepid reception. In his compilation of fascinating stories and implications surrounding the rise of technology, Herzog finds just the right corners of the connected world to explore, and presents interesting questions for our consideration without grafting his own opinions too strongly onto the film. There’s much more warmth and empathy in Herzog’s tone than he’s given credit for.
19) The Handmaiden / Park Chan-wook
A twisty, roundabout film disguising a much more simple and uplifting love story. The machinations of Park Chan-wook’s multi-part chamber drama-cum-erotic thriller are fun and involving, but it’s the film’s tender core that really resonates with me. Thankfully, Park seems to have outgrown the sadistic streak of the revenge trilogy (which includes Oldboy). The extent to which all of the sumptuous production design—makeup, costuming, sets—contribute to the impact of this film is masterful.
18) Cameraperson / Kirsten Johnson
Next to Moonlight, the other great miracle of cinematic empathy from 2016. To be a great cameraperson you must be open and empathetic; you’re not passively capturing life, but actively bumping up against it, allowing it to impact you and your presence to alter it. Through canny editing, documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson shows us precisely these moments, and reflects on how they have changed her. Though occasionally the internal logic of her montage becomes a bit too transparent and simplistic, Johnson creates a work of warmth and hope far greater than the sum of its discarded shots.
17) Arrival / Denis Villeneuve
I appreciate the earnestness of Arrival, the way it wears its morals and allegory on its sleeves. This is a film about communication and cooperation, about a certain feminine-coded openness that unfortunately gets tangled up in an otherworldly mysticism. It should instead be raw and earthy. Still, the specifics of this alien encounter are unique and provocative enough to hold our interest until the final movements crystalize the nascent thematic elements. It’s a bit disappointing that the film gets away with having so little thematic resonance until some twists recast these themes as central to the film, but get away with it it does.
16) Our Little Sister / Hirokazu Koreeda
A beautiful and simply-told story of family, community and personal discovery. There’s something almost Linklater-esque in the way this film rambles along, observing its characters engage with life both alone or together. Films like these work best when, like Linklater’s, they pulse with a palpable empathy for every soul on the screen. What ultimately emerges here is a multifaceted exploration of independence and self-fulfillment.
15) Midnight Special / Jeff Nichols
Much has been made of Midnight Special’s comparisons to a specific breed of old-fashioned, family-centered sci-fi films. While all these films share a wonderment of experiences beyond our understanding, there is a significant difference in tone. Here, the wonder is fraught with worry, the adventure overshadowed by danger and desperation. Midnight Special isn’t exactly somber, but its tone exposes its concern with we imperfect beings here on Earth, and not simply a romantic Beyond. (Read my full review.)
14) Sunset Song / Terence Davies
Terence Davies’ aching sun-dappled melodrama operates within the same confines its heroine finds herself stuck in. She’s torn between her intelligence, independence and desire for her own life, and the inevitability of life’s disappointments. Similarly, the film presages its own dramatic developments, courageously facing down the theatricality of its machinations. Sunset Song does occasionally feel overly designed—its emotions a bit on its sleeves, its dips into melodrama a bit too filled with gusto—but it’s only because the text is so knowing about the way time progresses.
13) The Wailing / Na Hong-jin
Exciting, nervy and paranoid riff on the collision of mysticism with modern life. The Wailing is a huge step forward for Na stylistically, showing a much richer handling of mood and tone and an ability to strike multiple notes at once confidently and gracefully. The epic scope of the film also allows him to dig in as a screenwriter to create a compelling, ambiguous and rewarding narrative world were spirits and forces of good and evil are literalized, but all the more dangerous in our modern world of doubt.
12) Manchester by the Sea / Kenneth Lonergan
With intricate contours and minute detail, Manchester by the Sea charts the emotional wreckage of the past. It’s like a topographical map of pain, a survey of hurt. Each trigger of this pain is catalogued and explored, and its linked reaction is charted across the face and body of Casey Affleck. It can be an agonizing prospect to know pain so intimately, but it’s exactly the kind of reflection Affleck’s down-on-his-luck handyman needs to return to life. And Kenneth Lonergan writes and directs this hurt with such exactitude that its surveying feels poignant and necessary. (Read my full review.)
11) Everybody Wants Some!! / Richard Linklater
Nobody makes films like Richard Linklater: warm, rambling, laconic, inviting, and just mellow, man. He has a knack for disarming the viewer in the most unassuming way. There’s no showy gimmicks or ostentatious style, just a naturalistic rhythm and a structure that quietly flies in the face of rigid narrative convention. Case in point is Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. (Read my full review.)
10) Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids / Jonathan Demme
An incredibly artful yet unobtrusive concert film—no surprise coming from the master of the form, Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense). Demme’s arsenal of cameras are always in the right place to capture not just the focal point of any one moment of stage, but any gesture or action of dynamic visual interest. He makes room for the personalities of all the musicians on stage, but also the expressiveness of the dancers, the spectacle of the sets and stagecraft, and the brilliance of the lights.
9) La La Land / Damien Chazelle
Beautiful and even wise in the way it believably traces the contours of the central relationship with enough understand to strike multiple notes at once. In places, the film pops and sizzles, externalizing the feeling of falling in love, when the whole world comes alive in a way only visible to the lovers. There’s a lot at play in La La Land, though, and not all of it is perfectly sculpted. Perhaps later in his career Chazelle will be a bit more ruthless sticking to theme.
8) The Fits / Anna Rose Holmer
The Fits is a fantastic debut of a new voice and a refreshing sensibility. Co-writer and director Anna Rose Holmer shows remarkable control over the size and scope of the world she depicts—an impress feat for a first-time feature director. She’s content to keep the film modest. “Modest” may feel like a dirty word, but it’s the perfect choice for this wispy breath of a film. Holmer’s vision and execution are perfectly aligned. The surprise of the year. (Read my full review.)
7) Cemetery of Splendour / Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul has said that, because of a contentious political climate, Cemetery of Splendour will be his final film shot in his homeland. If so, that’s a shame because his work is so sensitively tied to the specific locations, rhythms and people of an area, as far back as his remarkable debut Mysterious Object at Noon. Apichatpong is an auteur with a distinctive style, yes, but an auteur who thrives on collaboration with the real world and systematically develops opportunities for the locations and people surrounding him to seep into his films. (Read my full review.)
6) Certain Women / Kelly Reichardt
I’m so appreciative of Reichardt for the physical impacts her films have on me. In fact, “impact” is too strong a word because what I experience is a calming, a slowing down of my thoughts and my biorhythms. Her films are so patient and subtle, and she invites the viewer to experience their subtleties along with her. In Certain Women, Reichardt finds a perfect way to introduce interesting entanglements and complex thematic resonances into her own rustic simplicity. Somehow, these three short stories about competent women belittled by the world around them gain dimensions through their juxtaposition.
5) Moonlight / Barry Jenkins
Bracingly, bruisingly intimate. It’s a rare and precious gift in cinema to feel this close to a character, to empathize with his interiority while only seeing his cagy exterior. Chiron is so fragile and wounded, almost too sensitive for this world, and the young performers capture this fragility in a way I’ve never really experienced before. I felt especially connected to Ashton Sanders as the teenaged Chrion, whose slender frame communicates so much rage, hurt and insecurity.
4) The Witch / Robert Eggers
Robert Eggers’ The Witch isn’t just an “assured” cinematic debut—an easy term too often reached for—but a damn near masterful one. An assured film is merely studied and technically proficient; a masterful one is singular and inspired. Not content to emulate the styles, rhythms or contours of any recognizable formula, The Witch discovers its own shape, its own textures. It doesn’t manufacture chills in trite and familiar ways, but through unnoticed and unexpected tactics that slowly and methodically creep under your skin and stay there. It’s a sustained and uncomfortably close encounter with pure evil. (Read my full review.)
3) The Lobster / Yorgos Lanthimos
A startlingly unique and complete vision. Lanthimos has grown considerably since his debut, sharpening his allegorical storytelling mode and tailoring a kind of flat formal precision to his strange tone. I’ve heard Kubrick referenced in relation to this film—probably because of an affected and dry performance style—but the filmmaker I thought of most was Buñuel. The main difference is that Lanthimos’s surreality is so convincingly baked into the society he depicts; it runs beyond the intriguing premise of the film and works its way into every detail onscreen.
2) Knight of Cups / Terrence Malick
Predictable, right? I understand that Malick’s swirling poeticism and distinct lack of conventional narrative isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but dismissing Knight of Cups out of hand ignores how completely radical his style has become: we shouldn’t turn our backs to a major artist taking risks like these. Knight of Cups, like all of Malick’s films, is about a restless searching. It’s the quest of a lost soul from a state of spiritual emptiness to a reintegration and reengagement with life, and therefore with something bigger and greater than himself. With that and a few basic signposts in mind, it becomes simple to let Malick’s thought-images wash over you.
1) Silence / Martin Scorsese
Speaking of ignoring a major artist taking bold risks, the complete silence surrounding Martin Scorsese’s most mature work is the cinematic crime of the year. I’m convinced that Silence will one day be reappraised, like so many of his other films have, but until then, I’ll be here alone claiming that Silence is Scorsese’s masterpiece.
Silence is both experiential and texturally rich as well as intellectually alive. It’s an inquisitive film built around a series of religious tests, moral riddles whose consequences grow more and more thorny. Or rather, the film burrows deeper and deeper into manifestations of the same dilemma: the stubborn pride of conviction and the distance between heart and action.
It’s an extremely complex exploration of these ideas, but the film is tactile as well as brainy. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography beautifully captures the indifference of the natural world to the struggles of men, and the range of shades in his celluloid palette creates a whole world of levels of darkness and light that mirror the spiritual health of the missionaries. Lastly, the sound design is integral to what makes Silence so powerful. True to its title, this is a quiet film, using subtle modulations in its soundscape to draw the viewer deeper inward, to a place of reflection and meditation.
There is extreme physical suffering in Silence, but nothing moved me more than a shattering series of hushed closeups of hands desperately and joyously grasping totems of their faith. Astonishing.