Those of us who call it home can kind of take it for granted, but it’s an honor and a pleasure to be part of a collective effort like The Playlist, and that’s never made more abundantly clear than when we compile our official annual Best Films ranking. As in recent years, we’ve collated our rankings of films from a wide sample of individual top ten lists (this year, 20 of our contributors submitted lists for consideration), and once again we could not be prouder of the results, or more convinced of how well they represent the blog’s eclectic, broadminded and passionate cinematic taste. We’ve a runaway popular choice for number one (it gained more than twice the points of the runner-up film and placed on almost every single list); three documentary entries (with several more very narrowly ending up in Honorable Mentions); and a higher than usual proportion of foreign-language titles gracing the list this year.
That said, there are, as ever, also a couple of films you might have heard of that, simply by virtue of having to call time on this feature, we have not been able to include. This year the two films we were forced to exclude purely because not enough of us had a chance to see them to form a representative sample are Martin Scorsese‘s “Silence” and Gareth Edwards‘ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” For what it’s worth, in the former case, of the three contributors who have seen Scorsese’s religious epic, two placed it mid-table on their personal lists, while of the three who’ve seen ‘Rogue One,’ one would have given it an outside position. Aside from that, our only criterion was that the film had to have had a U.S. theatrical release in the calendar year 2016. Without further ado, here is the official Playlist 25 Best Films of 2016.
25. “One More Time With Feeling”
Turning the camera on Australian musician Nick Cave during the most unfathomably painful period of his life, director Andrew Dominik could’ve created a documentary dealing in platitudes — little salves acting as a superficial balm to the profound grief and loss with which Nick and his wife Susie grapple following the tragic death of their teenage son Arthur. However, “One More Time With Feeling” offers no such easy answers, and instead brings audiences respectfully, with deepest empathy, inside Cave’s grieving process, channeled through the recording of the album Skeleton Tree, which had been written before, but recorded after the tragedy. Deeply intimate and piercingly observant, Dominik toes the line between supportive friend and objective director, capturing Cave as he works through the powerful new songs in the studio, always understanding that the cavernous hole left by Arthur’s passing can never be filled. Aided by stellar, largely black-and-white cinematography by Benoît Debie and Alwin H. Küchler, including some breathtaking 3D, it’s a film about grief and death, but it thrums with life, humor and an aching, beautiful sadness. —Kevin Jagernauth
24. “The Wailing”
Almost every year of the 21st century has been a great year for Korean genre cinema, but 2016 was particularly so: Yeon Sang-ho delivered one of the most satisfying zombie movies in years with “Train To Busan;” Kim Jee-woon topped himself with resistance epic “The Age Of Shadows;” Kim Seong-hun turned the disaster movie on its head with the rousing “The Tunnel;” and, as we’ll see below, Park Chan-wook delivered one of his best films to date, too. But a searing, batshit highlight was “The Wailing,” a horror film quite unlike anything else you’ve seen, and one which vaults director Na Hong-jin (“The Yellow Sea”) into the top ranks. Set in a small mountain town, it follows a bumbling local police officer (Kwak Do-won) investigating a series of baffling outbursts of violence which may or may not be related to a Japanese drifter newly arrived in town, and which threaten to claim his own daughter. Relentlessly entertaining even at two-and-a-half hours long, it does what so much Korean film does so well and melds tones and genres in a way that somehow feels coherent, with bumbling comedy going hand-in-hand with procedural thriller, political subtext, horror and fantasy. The plot twists could threaten to feel relentless, but Na glues everything together with a pervading and utterly freakish atmosphere in a way that we’re still struggling to shake months on. —Oliver Lyttelton
23. “Kubo And The Two Strings”
“Kubo And The Two Strings” is a gorgeous movie — gorgeous in its designs, gorgeous in its optimism, gorgeous in its jaw-droppingly well-realized stop-motion animation, gorgeous in its morals and values. So to consider it one of the year’s most beautiful movies would ultimately sell it short. Not merely one of the most vibrant, dazzling, vivacious films of the year; it’s one of the most engaging cinematic spectacles in ages — Laika’s fourth feature is well beyond their greatest accomplishment to date. It’s their calling card for their hopefully buoyant future, a resounding, impassioned tribute to the magnificent power of storytelling, and a warmly welcome directorial debut from Laika CEO Travis Knight, the rising visionary who might honestly become the John Lasseter of 21st-century animation, as long as his Oregon-based company continues to blaze its painstakingly detailed trail of excellence. Lavish, imaginative, and splendidly intricate in every conceivable detail, both for the eyes and the soul, this story of a little boy on a quest to defeat his deity grandfather with only a humorless monkey and a giant, dim talking beetle for company builds incrementally to become a truly towering accomplishment in filmmaking. To see it is to let yourself be engulfed by its visual opulence and breathtaking storytelling, and to find yourself brimming over with flowery adjectives to describe this very gorgeous film. —Will Ashton
22. “American Honey”
“I like tuh make money, get turnt,” Carnage and ILoveMakonnen expound on the “American Honey” soundtrack, elucidating the worldview of the scrappy magazine crew we’re about to party with for the next three hours. It’s a good-enough condensation of the contemporary American dream, and director Andrea Arnold expertly contrasts the the crew’s real circumstances against the boasts of the trap and country anthems that the kids sing while whiling away empty hours on the road. For all their declarations, none of them seem to make any money, with the exception of the rapacious Krystal (a shark-eyed Riley Keough, who delivers every line with the clipped, flat Southern affect of Britney Spears) — Donald Trump in a Confederate-flag bikini. The American Dream™ has been explored time and again in cinema, but “American Honey” allows you to live the reality of these young dreamers escaping their dreary lives through so-called entrepreneurship. By its close, you feel as though you’ve gone through it all — contact highs in the van, rolling in the grass flush with lust, sprinting across manicured lawns and motel parking lots. Arnold makes the experience an intimately immediate and enormously intoxicating journey. Anchored by the love story of a rat-tailed con man (Shia LaBeouf) and a dreadlocked Star (ethereal newcomer Sasha Lane), what looks like a depressing, depressed trail through the strip malls of middle America becomes an exhilarating expression of hot-blooded youthful energy that burns blindingly bright — for a moment, but what a moment. —Katie Walsh
The verdict in “Loving v. Virginia” was crucial: a ruling by United States Supreme Court during the Civil Rights era that led to the striking down of laws banning interracial marriage across the country. And yet, it’s also one of the most relatively gentle battles of that era: There were no sit-ins or marches or riots or impassioned political speeches on behalf of Richard and Mildred Loving. Instead, the devoted pair spent nearly a decade patiently fighting the system, fighting to be allowed simply to live as man and wife in the state they called home, one small judicial step at a time. It’s the everyday-ness of their courage that fascinates Jeff Nichols in the the stirringly affectionate “Loving,” with the director pivoting away from every trope you would expect from this kind of film, right down to leaving the courtroom proceedings off-camera. Rather, he explores the toll of everyday, casual racism and the decency and fortitude it took the Lovings to remain committed to each other, their children, and living with the freedom they deserved. It’s a film — carefully crafted, and elegantly performed by Joel Edgerton and a luminous Ruth Negga — where the grandest political gesture is an utterly authentic photograph of a couple, deeply in love, with nowhere else to be but in each other’s arms. —Kevin Jagernauth