Ok, we’re done looking back on 2016, but if you have an appetite for more and or missed it, here’s all our Best Of 2016 coverage.
OK, I know, I know. We’re waaaaaay past the sell by date on Top 10 lists, I’m all too painfully aware. My tombstone will read, “Life got in the way,” and life is, again, the reason I’m woefully (embarrassingly?) behind. I pen my top 10 so perpetually late I always feel like, “what is there left to say that hasn’t been said already?” and “what’s the point?” Valid, but I ultimately still bother at this point only because it’s an artifact I’ll eventually look back on for posterity (and I had to put this somewhere).
It’s a cop out to lament the 2016 shit show this late in the game — Herr Trump, alt-right garbage, soul-crushing hot takes — so I’ll try and keep it short. While the world crumbled outside I found salvation in the dark with moving images flickering on the screen. Movies for me in this very shitty year were a refuge, a distraction, a place to quietly cry and oddly, given the nature of its individualistic experience, a space to feel more human.
These are the films of 2016 that moved me, made me laugh, or echoed on in my head long after they ended, even if my future headstone tried its best to prevent me from expressing my thoughts in every way imaginable. Note: if I could make a tie for #1 with my top six films I would. At the risk of repetition throughout, for such a cruel, inhumane year, the cinema it produced couldn’t be more human, alive and merciful.
20. “Midnight Special”
“I’ll always worry about you. That’s the deal,” Michael Shannon explains to his son in Jeff Nichols’ engrossing laser light sci-fi drama, “Midnight Special.” And you know he means it — that burning desire to safeguard is arguably the only true trait the character demonstrates because it’s all that matters. Creeping around after dark, avoiding the fear of capture, Nichols’ pulsing, most ambitious film to date thematically returns to the protective motifs found in the anxiety-riddled “Take Shelter.” Concerning itself with a young boy and his supernatural powers, the on-the-run thriller details how those abilities upend the world around him: the intimate one troubling his father, and the grander scale alarming the government. Its preoccupation, however, is fatherhood, the fears of parenting and never knowing, until it’s too late, whether you made the right choices. While its full blown science fiction ending didn’t provide the promised spiritual deliverance of its divine themes, ‘Special’ still resonates as a moving consideration of holding on too tight and coming to terms with letting go. [Review]
19. “The Eyes Of My Mother”
Perverse is the mind that sutures a gruesome yet strangely tender story like this one. “The Eyes Of My Mother” is the austere and startling directorial debut of Nicolas Pesce — a damaged, “Se7vn”-esque fairy tale that’s surprisingly stirring too. Surgical and languorous, as if Bela Tarr made a stark, black-and-white chiller with Alfred Hitchcock, the film’s narrative spine is unnervingly patient and controlled, replete with creepy long takes, brilliant compositions and calculated dread. Possessing a dispassionate, almost trance-like mien, ‘Eyes’ eerily contemplates a woman’s dark twisted fantasies and the curiously medical desires that blossom after ghastly horrors befall her family. Falling outside the norms of the genre, uninterested in traditional frights, “The Eyes Of My Mother” also proves horror can open the veins of the human condition compassionately, albeit in sick fashion, because as disturbing as the slowly unfolding drama is (very), its clinical dissection of an isolated life reveals a sorrowful tragedy about needs, loss and the mysterious ways in which trauma manifests. [Review]
I’ve heard more than one person describe the artfully restrained “Loving” as dull and I can’t help but lament the dig. The carefully embroidered story of a reserved interracial couple, who challenged anti-miscegenation laws and fought all the way to the Supreme Court in the name of their marriage, the serene and intimate “Loving” doesn’t possess many fireworks, moments of virulent racism (just the ugly, everyday prejudice) or melodrama to give it oomph. Yet it’s a modest drama unconcerned with the historical outcome the audience already knows, rather placing its kindhearted regard on the people inside it, who they are and how they live their lives. To the untrained eye not absorbing its quiet resolve, its detailed stitching, “Loving” could seem anti-dramatic and faint. Yet its tenderly understated nature is so sensitively drawn, its enriching tone pulls you in even closer. Surveying its human struggles with an observational, thoughtful lens, the movie’s pains will seem minute by the standards of most movies, but under that microscope of this nuance teem layers of emotional life. At its center are two delicate performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, but it’s the latter’s supple touch that is particularly beguiling. It takes composed confidence to form a movie this still, this diffused, but “Loving’s soft-spoken qualities reward by illuminating its humanity with a rich soulfulness. [Review]
Name a documentary you’ve watched in the past fifteen years and it’s a strong bet that world-traveling cinematographer Kirsten Johnson lensed it. With her absorbing first effort, perhaps more memoir and travelogue than traditional “directorial debut,” Johnson’s gaze weaves an impressionistic collage from outtakes of the documentaries she’s shot. As if assembling unused bits from when the camera was not meant to be recording, she arranges seemingly disparate pieces of footage and unearths unexpected human connections of struggle, loss and pain. Deeply personal despite its fragmentary, but deliberate shape, discarded refuse, images and found memories superimpose to form a poetic diary of a lived-in life that has explored the globe and witnessed both suffering and determined resilience. Expressive, yet unsentimental, “Cameraperson” is a viewfinder on the world and a shared glimpse through the eyes of a sympathetic observer. [Review]
16. “Don’t Think Twice”
How heartening is it that a diverting little indie film like “Don’t Think Twice,” could have one of the best per screen averages of the year and gross $4.4 million theatrically alone (this was a VOD hit and trust me, The Film Arcade’s highest grossing film by a long mile). And is there a warmer, funnier and more endearing comedy director out there today than Mike Birbiglia? This insightful tale about creative communal living as a way to avoid adulthood mirrors the extended college experience. Centering on a tight-knit improv comedy troupe that falls apart after the success of one of its more ambitious members, “Don’t Think Twice” is small in scale, but still poignant and present as it pines nostalgically for the past of careless days when laughs were all that mattered. No one actually lives together, physically, but when the individual supersedes the collective, an untenable philosophy falls apart. And when this seemingly forever-lasting cooperative crumbles, as adolescents struggle to transition into grownups, Birbiglia nails the wistfulness that arrives when seasons change and life chapters close. In the middle of this story about stability outshining spontaneity lies an affecting comedy worthy of your laughs. [Review]
15. “The Witch”
Hear ye, hear ye, do not deviate, or sin or risk provoking the wrath of the wicked. It’s slightly weird to discuss “The Witch” at this point. It’s a movie I saw way back in the winter of 2015 at Sundance, and its bewitching shadow has nearly passed, but it’s an undeniably haunting piece of cinema announcing a terrific new director in Robert Eggers and introducing breakout star Anya Taylor-Joy. Conjoining Terrence Malick and Ingmar Bergman with possessed, horror sensibilities, “The Witch” materializes like an apparition, yet a carefully controlled chamber drama with an undercurrent of nightstalking menace. It made nearly every list imaginable in our Best Of 2016 coverage; breakthrough filmmaker, breakthrough actor, best score and soundtrack and more. Centering on an excommunicated puritan family, the spellbinding and deeply unsettling ‘Witch’ begs you to reconsider any divergences from the flock lest your conspicuous heresy rile the deep dark woods and that crazy black goat that lives in the backyard. [Review]
14. “The Handmaiden”
I had nearly given up on South Korean filmmaker Chan Wook-Park. I thought the arch, but silly “Stoker” was a disaster and his previous films, “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK” and the ambitious “Thirst” were super mixed bags at best. But the filmmaker behind the Vengeance trilogy returned with just that in “The Handmaiden.” A delectable conman/caper movie that packs in an erotic fantasy storyline too, Chan Wook-Park’s ravishing movie, lush in its overall dressings, centers on a shrewd woman secretly involved in a plot to defraud a Japanese heiress by infiltrating her life as a handmaiden. A lesbian love affair, jealousy and twists and turns threaten to undo every conniving, slippery plot. Exquisitely rendered, perhaps the most gorgeous-to-look-at film of the year, its stylish cinematography, costuming and every production design element is impeccably sewn. Graceful and razor sharp when necessary, “The Handmaiden,” is arguably the masterpiece Chan Wook-Park has been threatening to make his entire career. [Review]
13. “Things To Come”
Mia Hansen-Løve’s lovely films often play with notions of nostalgia and time and place. Both “Eden” and “Goodbye First Love” reflect on the halcyon days of formative experiences. But in her latest effort, her gaze contemplates the uncertainty and open space of the future. A restrained, carefully-observant filmmaker, Hansen-Løve always crafts delicate little gems that most audiences would consider to be “about nothing” — she spends time with characters rather than plot their course. “Things To Come” stars the pitch-perfect Isabelle Huppert — arguably 2016’s most essential actor — as a philosophy teacher who tries to chart her path forward following a late-in-life divorce. Simultaneously, she grapples with her initially strange, newly acquired freedom, a histrionic, needy mother and a star student who reenters her life, now grown into the role of disenchanted equal rather than admiring pupil. Hansen-Løve gently meditates on her protagonists’ uncertain horizon without pronouncements, without the need to push her forward and her poetic sensitivities always find the sublime in the simplest of human moments. And with quiet revelations, the director confirms that no one knows how to end a movie quite as divinely as she can. [Review]
12. “The Lobster”
Forget the douchebag screenwriter in “La La Land,” boasting about his “world building” prowess, cinema’s greatest draughtsman currently is Greek weird wave forerunner Yorgos Lanthimos, the architect behind some of today’s most wonderfully offbeat narratives. The filmmaker, with his strange, undeviating rules and odd constructs creates little weirdo universes and characters who inhabit them without a trace of irony or self-awareness. In his latest lopsided wonder, “The Lobster,” Lanthimos fashions a dystopian near future where, according to law, single people are obliged to find romantic partners within forty-five days or suffer the fate of transformation into their favorite animal of choice (lol). A bizarre edifice begets a bizarre film, but one that is superbly awkward and uproariously funny, as well as a little bit sad. Part of “The Lobster” deconstructs the curious nature of coupledom, and the cultural find-your-soulmate pressures while meditating on notions of free will — none of these guileless individuals, all of them a little bit like children, can even consider they have a choice or say in the matter. That is until they run into the people in the woods who have rejected society’s norms, but still amusingly live by their own authoritarian codes. Crafted with deadpan hilarity, and a solemn classical music score that renders the absurdity all the more comical, “The Lobster” is brilliantly straight-faced in its refection of love and loneliness. Featuring a remarkably committed turn by Colin Farrell as a feckless, overweight, passive-aggressive boob, “The Lobster” is delightfully peculiar; a purposefully-stilted monument that’s a laugh riot to marvel at. [Review]
Another movie so sensitively painted, so droll, yet affecting and wise, Jim Jarmusch pulls off the impossible by forming a movie around an unassuming bus driver and poet who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. That’s pretty much it plot-wise. The titular character (yep, he’s named Paterson) drives his bus, writes poetry, come homes to his loving wife, walks his dog, and drinks at the same watering hole every night right on the clock. But the ever-attentive filmmaker inspires with soulfulness, the enigma of coincidence and wry humor — plus Adam Driver quickly proves that he is the actor of his generation. Jarmusch loves the cyclical, even poetic nature of sometimes tedious daily rituals, and in many ways, the sublime little “Paterson” is an insightful ode to domestication and living a happy, simple life. Like the small pleasures found in drinking the most rewarding cup of coffee in the morning, “Paterson” knows how to savor the silent moment in between each sip. [Review]