Notable Blindspots: The Handmaiden, Toni Erdmann, Cameraperson, 20th Century Woman, the Love Witch, Fire at Sea, Loving.
Honorable Mentions: The Nice Guys, Miles Ahead, No Home Movie, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, 13 Hours, A Bigger Splash, Knight of Cups, Cemetery of Splendour, The Witch, The Edge of Seventeen, 13th, Love & Friendship, Everybody Wants Some, Rogue One.
#30: THE LOBSTER
A masterwork of tone, the deadpan dystopia of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster is one I find myself frequently looking back with more and more warmth. There’s an undercurrent of cruelty and cynicism to be sure, but the pointed kind—its premise (what if the societal expectations and norms of human coupling were imposed authoritarian style?) less interesting than its humanist focus on it. As it unfolds we see absurd rules imposed on people, and how they adapt to or reject them with increasing hilarity, but the films real sadness lies in how people (on all sides of the spectrum) naturally absorb them without even knowing. Colin Farrell also gives what is undoubtedly the best performance by an actor in 2016.
#29: SPL 2 (KILLZONE 2)
Sadly didn’t catch up with this until it was on Netflix as I would’ve loved to have seen this action on the big screen, but this is the gangster martial arts movie rendered as operatic tragedy. Soi Cheang managing so many moving elements—not just cars and bodies, but the settings themselves and how he and his stunt team movie through them—all destroying each other and being destroyed in some form or another, their worth determined by the beating they can take and dish out, it’s hard not to get swept up in its beautiful carnage.
#28: POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING
Besides my #11 choice, this was my most watched film of the year. A series of sketches, maybe, but the way this weaves jokes inside of other jokes on top of other ones is a marvel, and all in service of how the The Lonely Island is kind of, but not really, like the Wu-Tang Clan. That this was shot by one of the best cinematographers in studio comedy Brandon Trost helps too, having worked with Taylor/Neveldine (the duo behind the Crank films) there’s a real energy and kineticism to his visuals, that somehow finds even more time and space to fill with gags. Also, nothing made me laugh harder in 2016 than seeing “TERRORIZE THAT PUSSY” in huge shining lights.
#27: THINGS TO COME
The title of my Mia Hanson-Løve’s latest implies an anxiety about the inevitable future—something Nathalie (the 2nd of two excellent turns by Huppert) experiences directly as her life literally and figuratively crumbles—but her characters live in the present, so that’s where she lingers… On ordinary people learning to cope, adapt and find peace in day-to-day life, whatever shape that path may take, it’s probably not what you planned.
#26: HACKSAW RIDGE
With great power comes great responsibility. Textbook melodrama about reconciling our will to do good with our ability to inflict harm until suddenly it’s a grindhouse picture about reconciling our ability to do good with our will to inflict brutal fucking savagery… Mad Mel is back, baby.
“listen to what the youths are saying… these are old clichés”
Leave it to Johnnie To to take a simply premised crime film (a cop, a crook and a doctor each trying to do their job: stop more crooks, commit more crime and save a life, respectively, but getting lost in process along the way) into a thrilling portrait on the corruption of arrogance and power. To invites us to watch as fallible individuals each steer a Chinese institution into the iceberg in slow motion.
#24: THE INVITATION
“… that was mercy”
The destructive, wavelike nature of grief as a communal experience that permeates every space we occupy, every movement we make and every interaction we have. Karyn Kusama’s (Jennifer’s Body) formal grace is the obvious star here, the masterful staging, gestures and spatial awareness she shows off in particular, but as the film goes on and the screws tighten agonizingly slowly all the way until its haunting final image, Kusama achieves something far beyond form—her genre thrills deeply woven with a sense of the pervading, inescapable pain that, whether we’re struggling to remember or forget, can blind us as easily as it brings us together.
Adam Curtis’ journalism documentaries are fascinating because of their sweeping sense of curiosity. He’s always analyzing moments in history and not just placing them but questioning them in a complex, larger context, which is why his latest feels so necessary. His thesis is presented early: that a lot of current world issues—namely Syria, Brexit, Trump—all stem from a place of yearning for the simplification of complex problems, and that that yearning has caused us to, time and time again, construct false, oversimplified narratives that we can apply oversimplified solutions on, further complicating the problems. His sprawling, expressionistic style capturing how Western politics has found itself in stasis, politicians saving face by preserving these narratives and only making performative gestures and actions that don’t get felt in the real world. Send people into enough unjust wars, and steal enough of their homes/financial futures and then lie to them and act like all is well, who knows who they’ll be desperate enough to turn to.
#22: RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN
The latest from South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo is a piece split down the middle, two attempts at the same day (a lonely filmmaker’s attempts at romantically pursuing of an also lonely young woman) each gesturing towards the other in ways that counter and inform. The first half is hilarious and tragic as it depicts the man’s fumbling self-sabotage, implying an inevitability: that this coupling simply won’t work. Meanwhile the second half , informed by the events of the first, “fixes” the director’s poor mindset and behavior, but maintains a sense of regret, confronting our inherent selfishness and our primal desire for company. Whether it be today or tomorrow we already know that these two naturally won’t work out, but both are lonely enough to give it a try it anyway.
#21: BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
Undoubtedly the biggest surprise of 2016 for me was that Zack Snyder’s sequel to Man of Steel is not only good, it’s probably the most fascinating film of its genre. A total Frankenstein monstrosity the world of Snyder’s Batman & Superman is one shaken by a horrendous act of violence the public will never fully understand… One consumed by fear, paranoia and reactionary violence—things in which Snyder infuses into every frame, his typical excessiveness and bombast here feeling more sadistic, aggressive and overbearing than ever, while his pretentious philosophizing feels almost intentionally like desperate grasping, looking for answers that simply aren’t there. This is a world where humans are the source and victims of violence first, mouthpieces of “justice” & fairness second, a world so trauma-ridden that basic morality isn’t even in the equation anymore. Snyder’s Batman is one that casually tortures and murders people when he’s not too busy quoting Dick Cheney (and the bush administration’s stance on terrorism post-9/11), while his Superman is one that questions the value of humanity in the first place. BvS is an ugly movie, one where sweet fan-favorite characters are gagged & photographed, mutilated and shot in the head, where horrific criminals are branded like animals, where even the people that are saved are terrified of the “good guys” and where ghosts and nightmares are more prevalent than scenes of heroism. It kind of rules.
#20: SUNSET SONG
“The land endures”
One of the more distressing films I saw in 2016, but also one of the most beautiful. Not sure it earns all of the routes it takes but Terrence Davies latest gracefully weaves micro/macro moments of tenderness and cruelty into a heartfelt ode to perseverance—time slips away, loved ones impose, death comes for us all, life goes on.
Could have used a little less thematic literalizing but this hits hard on a very moving, powerful idea: the extraordinary is really just a collective of ordinary people doing their goddamn jobs—with, of course, a little help from passion, experience, intuition and luck. Clint Eastwood’s most genius touch: contrasting the mundane activities on the ground (including some hilarious establishing shots of various Marriott hotels) with the moment where Sully, even after four decades of flying, can’t help but admire the view of new york from the cockpit… Whether we fully comprehend it or not we all crave the extraordinary, it’s why we came together and decided to conquer the sky in the first place. F**k you, birds.
#18: JT + THE TENNESSEE KIDS
Probably the most joyous and pure expression of an artist to hit screens this year, Justin Timberlake—with the help of the great Jonathan Demme—solidifies himself as the rare true talent that not just understands but absolutely adores the cooperative nature of art, both with his literal collaborators (The Tennessee Kids, excellent as always) and his audience. Before this I didn’t think it possible I’d be having an emotional reaction to a concert documentary, especially one I had only a passing familiarity with the music, but there’s a moment in here where the lights go up on the fans and JT is singing to what appears to be an endless wall of adoration about how he would be nothing without the support of everyone around him, “making two reflections into one” and just the look on his face says it all. Everyone in the room loves Timberlake, and he genuinely loves them back.
#17: KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS
This was the first Laika film where the incredible, tactile stop motion work they do resonated with me beyond just a recognition of obvious talent as they apply the craft here to mimic the story’s complex relationship with sight, memory and family—all things that in one way or another are manipulated and/or forgotten—and the importance of knowing when to latch on and when to let go. If I revisited it’d probably end up higher on the list but despite other apparent failures, 2016 was a good year for movies, guys.
Easily the most underrated studio outing of 2016, Robert Zemeckis’ old-school Hollywood wartime melodrama Allied was a pleasant end of the year surprise. Brad Pitt gives one of the best leading man performances, instilling his Bogart-type with the implied ruthlessness/sadness while Marion Cotillard balances the kind of steely warmth and timelessness only she could deliver, and Zemeckis weaves them—and their excellent costumes, bravo Joanna Johnston—into his pop technique and form simplicity, combining an intimately scaled story of people searching outwards for inward pain with the larger, national urgency of WWII. Zemeckies and screenwriter Steven Knight find deep anguish here in how war tears us apart, but also, eventually, an even deeper optimism in our ability to latch onto each other anyway. Pitt and Coltillard also have sex during a sandstorm. Seek this out.
#15: HAIL, CAESAR!
“DIVINE PRESENCE TO BE SHOT”
A story of individuals pointlessly (but endearingly) fighting back against stupid, chaotic, contradictory systems that see very little to no value in them, in typical Coen’s fashion, but so goddamn funny and sneakily dense I couldn’t help but love this. They present 1950s studio filmmaking as a wonderful hell of joy and deceit using broadly illusive movie stars and homoerotic dance numbers to distract people from politics and capitalism (“it’s… complicated”), and the movies themselves as a form of religion—God’s light, now shining from a projector. Movies matter insomuch that we believe in them, and a crisis of that faith is likely nothing more than a communist conspiracy.
Keith Maitland’s stunning documentary is uniquely powerful in its choice to barely acknowledge the gunman—who on August 1st, 1966 took the University of Texas hostage by climbing the campus tower and firing at civilians below—and instead allow the brave survivors to dictate the way this event is told and remembered. It’s harrowing to watch as they recall specific memories of the event (like a saviour’s hair colour, or a part of the body that still remembers being preemptively ready to have a bullet penetrate it) and see them complimented by deeply expressive rotoscope animation reenactments that beautifully capture all the detailed, human moments and feelings that swirled around such a tragic day. In the end, it’s those brief moments of humanity and bravery that are going to get us through these damn shootings.
Excellent for so many reasons way better writers have covered numerous times, I’m sure, but I was so absorbed by the momentary details of this—Jenkins, confident enough to let eyes, skin and silence do the heavy lifting, finds the fleeting touches, feeling and details of everyday interactions and the monumental power they have to create and destroy us. Final chapter of this in particular is overwhelming in its retrospective regret and hope.
Still don’t feel I’m qualified to unpack all that’s in here but Verhoeven doesn’t disappoint with his transition to euro art trash, teeing up Isabelle Huppert to deliver a performance so captivating and commanding it made me reevaluate if any performance I’d seen before it was even good. Her authority of the character taking on a meta component as we follow her through this icky thriller about a woman forced to search for her own avenues of power and pleasure in a world dominated by masculine desire and aggression. (Step one: manipulating that aggression violence so that it’s on a collision course with itself, rather than another victim.)
#11: THE SHALLOWS
If Jaws, among other things, was an allegorical implication that capitalism is machine that will eat our children with far more ease than any shark, then this is an empathetic reversal—the children refusing to be victims. Blake Lively delivers what is the single best physical, action performance of the year while Collet-Serra’s craft on display here is truly exceptional his lens contrasting the vulnerability of the human form with the dispassion of the environment, capturing simply through visceral genre action the strength it takes, and we’re driven to have, when overcoming physical and emotional trauma. As singer-songwriter Sia belts over the final scene “I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna die.”
Perhaps the most unpleasant film of 2016, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard, true to the author, is a horrifying, exquisitely styled mental breakdown of society. An excessive and brutal portrait of capitalism as literal class warfare that the only way to come out of victorious is to regress, the tenants eventually returning to primitive savagery as a means of “equality.” Having recently picked up Adam Nayman’s excellent book on Wheatley (Confusion and Carnage), I’ll leave you with a line front it that sums up this story succinctly: “In the wreckage, the post-apocalyptic merges with the pre-historic, and time and civilization fold in on themselves.”
#9: CERTAIN WOMEN
Kelly Reichardt’s oeuvre is one of deeply felt intimacy and isolation, and though Certain Women walks similar paths its construction (three short stories only related in general location) suggests, with a tinge of optimism, an inherent experiential connection. The lives of these women, filled with singular pains, frustrations and desires that each deal with in their own way, are filmed with an observational abstraction against a vast Midwest backdrop that perfectly expresses a terrifying, consuming loneliness but also the yearning that keeps us afloat. Also, Kristen Stewart messily eats diner food, so.
Juxtaposing a clinical, Nolan-esque blockbuster realism milieu with Ted Chiang’s powerful undercurrent of ephemeral humanity, Arrival is the only film in 2016 I cried watching twice. Though it saw many comparisons to cerebral sci-fi ventures before it, like Close Encounters, Contact or Interstellar, ultimately it’s far more in line with the likes of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, sharing with both a deeply emotional core about how we react to fear and tragedy, both personally and collectively, and how the former might inform the latter—ultimately finding not value, but optimism, and beauty, in the human condition.
#7: THE CLUB
“God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness”
This is how Pablo Larraín’s angry, difficult, quietly shattering The Club opens, a well-known passage from Genesis that directly mirrors the separation of these monstrous priests—that each in their own way used their status of power in the community to abuse, sexually and otherwise, children and others in their church—from the world at large, but the quote continues to hover over and permeate as Larraín and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong use unique lenses and framing to surround the films events in a faded haze, obscuring any moral truth there is to be found in them. That this was largely unseen in favor of Jackie is a crime.
#6: GREEN ROOM
Saw this at TIFF way back in September 2015 but as the year unfolded it kept wiggling its way back into my brain, getting richer and richer in terms of how casually thematically dense it is what for what is ostensibly a chamber thriller… A movie about how Nazism thrives by subtly and not unintelligibly infecting the spaces we operate in, our basic desire for civility convincing us confrontation is unnecessary meanwhile they’re already shoving us into their meat grinder? Timely, I’d say.
#5: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
More than any other recent filmmaker, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan tackles grief as the incredibly internal, strange and difficult thing to define that it is. Repositioning and repurposing themes expressed in his previous features—including the inner workings of small town america (from the frightening claustrophobia to the ultimately gentle vulnerability), and the world’s larger indifference to our personal struggles—Manchester by the Sea is a series of intricately detailed, occasionally surreal, human moments that we only experience in times of deep pain, Lonergan asking us to simply take solace in these since moments, and the brief relief there is to be felt in not being alone in them.
#4: O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
Leaving the TV/film debate at the door, probably the only obviously full blown masterwork of the year. (My personal preference aside, as you can see by its placement on the list.) Simultaneously a rumination on the images we construct of ourselves/project into the world, our relationship with those images—our own and each other’s—and the way we collectively inform and latch onto them, Ezra Edelman’s 8-hour OJ documentary seamlessly weaves American race relations, institutional failures and media/celebrity erosion into an epic, deconstructive tapestry. A total triumph of longform journalism and storytelling.
#3: MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART
This was the first film I’d seen by Jia Zhangke, so I was absolutely blown away when I eventually caught up with this, totally blind to anything about it, and found myself watching poignant painting of eroding pasts and, subsequently, futures in the name of “progress.” Mountains May Depart is filled with all kinds of gorgeous and subtle complimentary compositions, as any story that deals with the cyclical is bound to do (the opening & closing ones, in particular), but the matching shots of planes—one carrying seeds to replant a local forest, the other tao’s estranged son—signaling the helplessness and agony of an irreparable stasis absolutely floored me. History (emotional and otherwise) informs our future, so we better learn to reconcile the two.
I’m not even sure what to say about this one other than I already see myself wrestling with it for years to come. Shūsaku Endō’s book itself is a masterpiece, a book about reconciling belief and inquiry, love and cruelty, calm and brutality (spoiler: you can’t), and out of it Scorsese has stayed faithful to it and sculpted it into an extraordinarily empathetic portrait of arrogance and endurance. Many have already compared it to Scorsese’s previous spiritual works Last Temptation and Kundun, but it’s closest relative for me is his criminally underrated Bringing Out The Dead, the story of a paramedic addicted to the high of saving life, but unable to endure the pain of death—late in the film, after pitying himself for 2 hours, he’s confronted by the daughter of a man he couldn’t save with a simple “no one asked you to suffer.” It’s a powerful realization, that nothing but his own arrogant need to get his fix has brought this pain on him, and it’s a very similar realization that Garfield’s Father Rodrigues is forced to deal with as well. Imbedded into his missionary work is the inherent arrogance of colonialism, of martyrdom, of “true” faith, and the only real consequences of it are felt not by him, but by the already disenfranchised Japanese. Rodrigues’ realization comes just as late, as the Japanese local that betrayed him, Kichijiro (the most important figure in the story), returns to him for the umpteenth time to confess his sins, long after Rodrigues has already failed his mission and renounced: having your faith affirmed in tangible practices and expressions is unnecessary when real divinity can be found in the simplest expression of compassion.
“There’s always another day, right?”
In retrospect, a soft, quiet film dedicated to the passion and value of working class people, and the inherent bravery of getting out of bed every morning was a shoo-in for my best of the year list but Jim Jarmusch’s lovely, relaxing ode to finding your own avenues of creativity, love and support in a world that doesn’t hand you any still blew me away. Paterson practically radical in its insistence on a quiet, warm existence where everyone is striving, creating, loving, that your first and last piece of art is the life you live, and after the year as tumultuous as it feels like it’s come from another planet. I haven’t had the opportunity to see it since TIFF so I’m not sure it’s absolutely the best film of 2016, but it absolutely made me the happiest while I watched it unfold, and I’m willing to go with my gut on this one.