We compiled an aggregated Playlist Best Films Of 2015 which you can find here. However, regular contributors were also given the chance to submit personal lists.
I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a dumpster fire on top of a pile of burning kittens and puppies kind of a year. We lost some of the greatest artists and immeasurably important pop culture icons, and got rewarded with a last minute kick in the nuts after one of the ugliest and enraging election campaigns the U.S. has ever experienced. Meanwhile, as a more personal extra bit of frustration, the already autocratic Turkish government used a failed military coup attempt as an excuse to further plunge the previously democratic country further into an Islamic dictatorship, leaving me with two citizenships and not one country I feel comfortable calling my own.
Yet times like these is when great cinema reveals its importance in our lives, with movies that inspire us to build a better future, lets us escape our distressing reality with fun and exciting stories, and gives us new perspectives on how to approach our societies and the world in general. 2016 not only gave us some of the best cinematic works of recent memory, but it also offered a refreshing amount of variety as we got great films with vastly different styles, tones, genres, and stories, culminating in a wholly satisfying year that fulfilled every cinematic appetite.
Terrific documentaries that deftly deal with important social issues? Check. Awe-inspiring family entertainment full of wonder and magic? Check. Hard science fiction that values ideas over spectacle? Check. Grand escapist spectacle that exhilarates as much as it entertains? Check. Original indie dramas made by spectacularly talented newcomers with unique voices? Check. Straight genre exercises that fulfill the expectations of their core fans while moving their tropes into exciting new territories? Check, check, check. Whatever you expected out of cinema, 2016 offered at least one genuinely exceptional example of it.
But without further ado, here are the ten films I found to be the most exceptional out of the bunch:
10. “The Witch”
It seems like every year in recent memory has had that one small budget horror flick that gets hyped by critics as a true return to the genre’s suspense-over-gore roots. Fellow Playlist writers, and people who for some reason agreed to be my friends, Erik McClanahan and Ryan Oliver know that as a genre purist, I’m always underwhelmed by these examples. 2014’s “The Babadook” was an insightful exploration of grief and depression, but it could hardly be considered a genuine horror film, while 2015’s “It Follows” combined a genuinely grim atmosphere and mood with one of the dumbest and laziest screenplays of that year.
This year’s “The Witch”, writer/director Robert Eggers’ distressingly intimate and uncompromisingly bleak exploration of the effects of isolation and paranoia, finally breaks that curse with a final product that not only matched the hype that surrounded it, but might go down in genre history as a refreshingly original and assuredly constructed modern horror classic. Eggers’ dogged dedication to accurately representing 17th Century New England speech and beliefs places us squarely in the middle of its vast yet somehow suffocating farmland, where a puritan family eats itself from within as they’re convinced that an evil witch is out to destroy them. With hauntingly gorgeous cinematography full of expertly framed images you can hang on your wall, natural performances from its young cast, and a direction with a clear vision, “The Witch” is not experience that will be easily forgotten.
Yes, “Glassland” was made in 2014, and was released in Europe in 2015, but thanks to its early 2016 US release, it goes down as perhaps the most criminally underseen indie drama of the year. Writer/director Gerard Barrett’s second feature is almost an Irish version of 2015’s also great “James White.” Both films are about depressed and emotionally guarded young men who have to come to grips with their mothers’ illnesses.
In the case of “Glassland,” we’re lulled into following the dreary day-to-day existence of a taxi driver (Jack Reynor, who delivers a strikingly nuanced performance) who has to deal with his stubborn alcoholic mother (perhaps Toni Collette’s best performance in an already impressive career), until the underlying anger and resentment gradually bubbles up to the surface. Barrett approaches the devastating emotional rift between the mother and son, as well as the pain and suffering that surrounds the mother’s addiction, with refreshing empathy, turning a premise that was ripe for easy and manipulative melodrama into a profoundly involving experience. You can read my review here.
The year’s best thriller just happens to be a micro budget animated documentary about one of the first and most notorious mass shootings in U.S. history. Director Keith Maitland meticulously recreates the minute-by-minute details of the horrifying events surrounding the University of Texas shooting on August 1, 1966, when a deranged gunman began to indiscriminately fire at people from a clock tower. Even though the tragic results of the shooting and the identity of the shooter are common knowledge now, Maitland expertly builds a growing sense of dread and disorienting mystery as he places us squarely into the mindsets of the people who were experiencing the events at the time, without giving any other convenient exposition regarding the historical or social context of that horrible day.
Pretty much the entire doc consists of animated reenactments laid on top of audio testimonials from people who were there, yet the simplicity of this narrative approach allows the audience to feel every pulse-pounding moment along with the victims and the witnesses. As bleak as “Tower”s subject matter might be, it also turns out to be a film that has hope for humanity, showing us how true heroism and compassion can come out of the most unexpected places.
7. “I Am Not Your Negro”
As if expecting a year when racial divides and resentments took center stage, 2016 had its share of terrific documentaries about race relations in the U.S. Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” deftly used the story of one of the most notorious celebrity criminal cases of all time in order to deliver an epic dissection of the our recent history of racial strife. Ava DuVernay’s “13th” was an enraging and essential look at the institutional racism in our prison system. Both of these are great examples that belong on many Top 10 lists, but the reason I pick “I Am Not Your Negro,” director Raoul Peck’s love letter to writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, lies in the fact that Peck effectively manages to turn Baldwin’s own words into an inspiring rallying cry for resistance against the moral and institutional corruption of racism and bigotry.
Baldwin’s proposal for his unfinished book “Remember This House,” about three civil rights legends whose names you can surely name off the top of your head, is read by a refreshingly uncharacteristic Samuel L. Jackson, while Peck uses footage of Baldwin’s interviews intercut with images from civil rights protests to deliver one simple yet powerful message: The fight against evil and ignorance is an ongoing struggle, but it will never be fought alone, and the only way to beat it is a dogged dedication to enlightenment, empathy, and compassion.
Imagine if Lars Von Trier wasn’t a petulant man-child who used his immense talent to smear his self-absorbed feces all over the screen, but a mature filmmaker who understood the delicate balance between art and narrative, and you get “Jackie.” Here’s a biography that flips the clichés of the genre on its head, while constructing a heartbreakingly intimate and personal story that’s first and foremost about a person’s grieving period after having a loved one violently taken away. By focusing on that human aspect first, and then dealing with the biographical elements that surrounded Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of JFK, director Pablo Narrain creates an anomaly of a biopic, one that asks the audience to personally identify with the subject’s grief, instead of working as a clinical listing of historical events.
Viewers familiar with Narrain’s work will not be surprised by his intense use of handheld close-ups, jump cuts, a raw but elegant look, and a natural style that usually uses first takes (hence the Von Trier comparisons). This approach works wonderfully in humanizing one of American history’s most deified figures. Natalie Portman is sure to win her second Best Actress Oscar, but this isn’t one of those muggy Oscar-bait performances. It’s a somber take that infuses the screen with sorrow. The rest of the cast is terrific (even Greta Gerwig, who I find to be fingernails on a chalkboard annoying, is fine here), and Mica Levi‘s minimalist score is appropriately haunting.