I promised my editors that I’d ease off on the ‘2016 was awful’ intros to our year-end features. That said, fuck 2016, right in the eye. It’s been a crappy twelve months personally and politically (though happily not professionally), and for the first six months or so, cinematically too.
But fortunately, the movies came through, and the late summer and fall pulled things back to, if not a classic year of film, at least one with a variety and diversity of great movies of every kind. And those great movies became a salve, not because they were escapist (though a few were), but because they grappled and engaged with this world we’ve ended up with in a way that helped it feel manageable.
Anyway: my fifteen favorites are below (including some festival films that won’t open until 2017). Enjoy, thanks for reading, see you in 2017.
15. “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”
Having found his debut “Eagle Vs. Shark” a bit on the quirky side a few years back, I slept on Taika Waititi for too long. But not long after finally catching up with his excellent “What We Do In The Shadows,” as good a comedy as has been made this decade, I saw his latest, as joyous and sweet a movie as was in theaters this year. Following the flight from justice of Ricky Baker (the awesome Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster parent Hector (Sam Neill), it’s not entirely original: Waititi’s borrowing a bit from Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright (“Shit! Just! Got! Real!”). But he also repackages it into something that feels fresh, exciting and textured, while also making the rare comedy film that’s genuinely beautiful to look at. For me, it didn’t 100% stick the landing, but I still had more fun here than in almost anything else this year.
14. “Don’t Think Twice”
There are films that are always great, but that if they hit at a particular time of life, strike a chord with you that elevates them even further. And like seeing “Donnie Darko” at 15, or “Frances Ha” at 27, “Don’t Think Twice” couldn’t have been more precision-tooled to strike a nerve as I headed into my 30s. Mike Birbiglia’s film, following a UCB-style improv group (including Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key and Chris Gethard) whose comfortable existence is messed with when one of their number lands a gig on a “Saturday Night Live” style show, is so good at the love between, and petty jealousies within, friendship groups, the searching feeling of trying to escape a sense of stasis, the fears of failure and the fears of success, how you make comedy out of tragedy, and the competitiveness and camaraderie between comedians. In a year where I’ve seen highs and lows in the careers of creative friends, it felt almost anthemic somehow.
13. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
I had this list all locked down and ready to write more than a week ago, figuring that there was little chance of “Rogue One” making it in: I’d liked but not loved “The Force Awakens,” and hadn’t particularly clicked to the trailers. But then I saw it, and it felt like the most artful, vital and rousing blockbuster in ages, and I had to make room. Sorry, “Weiner!” Capturing the spirit of the original beloved trilogy while finding new ways to approach it and new avenues to explore, it feels like the product of a very specific and clear vision. And while the reshoot rumors might muddy the waters as to exactly whose vision that was, it does feel like Gareth Edwards’ film: he’s a big picture filmmaker in more ways than one, both with the astonishing wide-shot visuals and with the film’s focus on the power of the collective over the individual. And though it’s likely a question of accidental timing, that message, of the rebellion of the many against someone “that evil, with that much power,” feels so important going into 2017.
I don’t watch as many documentaries as I should (I still somehow haven’t seen “The Act Of Killing,” for one), but did better in the last year, with films like “Weiner,” “Tickled,” and “De Palma” among the highlights. The very best I saw, though, was Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” a film of forceful anger at decades of American injustice. The title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, outlawing slavery, and the “Selma” director rigorously sets out the case that slavery has continued through the chronic and outrageous bias of the American criminal justice system. The film’s calm, methodical manner almost hides the absolute simmering rage underneath, but the reason it’s so effective is that DuVernay makes you feel as much the latter as the former, while grappling a sprawling subject into a form that makes you feel genuinely enriched, rather than the movie being a surface skim. She reinforces what a filmmaking talent she is in general too: even the talking heads are framed in an interesting way, and the rhythm of the archive footage is a mighty thing. It’s on Netflix now, so you have no excuse not to watch it.
11. “The Handmaiden”
“I’m just an old man who likes dirty stories,” one character says near the end of Park Chan-Wook’s “The Handmaiden,” his lush adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith” that transplants the Victorian pageturner to Japanese-occupied Korea. At 53, you’d struggle to call Park “an old man,” but otherwise it seems like a wry bit of self-description, particularly when it comes to this film, as rapturously, gorgeously fetishistic a movie as has been made since Brian De Palma was good. The “Oldboy” helmer playfully wrangles a convoluted story into his most purely entertaining film, one with sights and sounds of real beauty, and even a genuinely moving romance, but still with the blackest of hearts underneath. It was a great year for Korean film, which is consistently the most exciting in the world right now, with films like “Tunnel,” “Train To Busan” and “Age Of Shadows,’ but this was at once the grubbiest and the most artful.