As 2016 draws to a close, it is the ideal time to reflect upon a fantastic year for film. Though the major tentpoles disappointed and suggest that the Big Hollywood machine is starting to sputter, this may be the single best year for film of the century, and I intend to argue the merits of each film on my Top Ten List.
Now, as unabashed disliker of lazy “Top X Things That Will Make You Go BLAH” kinds of pieces, I always endeavor to provide a little more commentary with these lists. So, I will name the flick, link to my review of it, give a brief overview of the reasons the movie won my esteem, and then add a commentary paragraph talking about a certain aspect of the film that I feel is worthy of extra discussion. Sometimes it will be a common link between that film and many others I liked this year, sometimes it will be remarking on the talent, or whatever. You’ll see.
Oh, and for the lazy, I’ll reproduce the list as an actual list at the very end, and also add some honorable mentions and dishonorable misses (things from 2016 I didn’t get to see, but very much want to).
Let’s get to it!
#10: The Lobster
My Top Ten List is populated by a lot of “not for everyone” kind of movies, so The Lobster is a great way to kick things off. It is a completely sardonic black comedy about relationships, expectations, and societal pressure, and the humor resonated with me perfectly. That being said, I understand the perspective of those who hated this film and/or never want to see it again. For my part, the film’s fantastic world-building, unconventional story structure, and dry performances (in a good way) all make this well worth the watching. Colin Farrell is great as always, but there a myriad perfect performances here. One final comment: this was my #2 film at the halfway point of the year (one film jumped it, then eight more were released to top it; hence only 3 of my top 10 films were released by the halfway point of the year, a suggestion that the year in film is often ridiculously back-loaded).
As I was drafting this list, it dawned on me that I have been attracted to non-conventional story structure this year. Maybe I am becoming more drawn to stories told in strange ways, but it seems like the best film from 2016 had this in common. Practically every film on this list subverts the standard notion of three-act, linear storytelling in some way, and one of the more subtle variation can be found here in The Lobster. The story is linear, but it is organized into a two act structure. Like Room or Full Metal Jacket, this serves to break the story into a “before” and “after” some tumultuous event, and creates a different dynamic than one is used to in storytelling. Keep your eyes peeled for other unique storytelling methods in the other films populating the list.
#9: Nocturnal Animals
This is a very recent watch (in fact, three of the films on this list I only saw in the last month or so). This film grew on me more and more as I thought about it during the drafting of my review, and while I must admit that I didn’t think it would even sniff this list as I walked out of the theatre, after considering the structure, themes, and artistry of Nocturnal Animals, I think it definitely deserves to be included. There are dark, haunting performances from some of the two best actors working today, an incredible story-within-a-story structure to the narrative which isn’t just for fun but actually informs the thematic leanings of the film, and just downright gorgeous cinematography. Keeping in line with The Lobster, this is another film that I can’t just blindly recommend to anyone, due to the dark subject matter, but I guarantee that the film will surprise and intrigue, if nothing else.
Here, I’d like to exalt the talents of Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Ford (don’t worry, Amy Adams gets hers a little later). Ford is the easier to laud, as Nocturnal Animals is only his second feature. For my money, he is now 2-for-2, creating a pair of masterpieces (the other is the wonderfully sad A Single Man starring Colin Firth; it’s available on Netflix in the USA for those interested). We’ll see another filmmaker’s sophomore submission next, but suffice to say that my ears will perk up at the mention of a new Tom Ford film from now on. Jake Gyllenhaal occupies a similar space, but obviously with a much longer filmography to his name. He’s been on a fantastic run recently, and I’d especially like to draw attention to his work with Denis Villeneuve in Enemy and Prisoners, as well as the wonderful Nightcrawler.
#8 La La Land
Here’s a film I could probably recommend to everyone, except I know a lot of people that hate musicals. La La Land is great enough to conquer such prejudice, but it would not surprise me if some of the stylistic elements of this film just don’t land with certain people. For my money, this is one of the most romantic, beautiful, and powerful films of the year, and it is impeccably acted and directed. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are great, and Damien Chazelle follows up Whiplash with yet another triumph. I would recommend everyone give this film a shot, as it is absolutely beautiful, and uses the structure of the musical genre to great effect. It is definitely worth a watch.
La La Land is another film in the long tradition of glorifying Hollywood and the kind of people who move there to try to “make it”. Whether you enjoy that kind of story or not (I tend to), you have to recognize that this kind of artistic exploration and celebration of artists is a tried-and-true strategy for raking in year-end awards, especially Oscars. The Artist, anyone? For this reason, it seems almost inevitable that La La Land is destined to crush these kinds of awards. I am not one for prognosticating black swan events, but there is a non-zero possibility that La La Land joins Silence of the Lambs, One Flew over the Cuckoo’ Nest, and It Happened One Night as the fourth film to sweep the five major categories at the Ocars (in this case: both leading actors, original screenplay, director, and best picture). I’ve ranked the film much lower than most, so I don’t actually think the film deserves such crazy accolades, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t perfectly positioned. One thing that might stand in its way: as you’ll see, this is a strong year, there may just be too much good competition.
#7 The VVitch
I absolutely loved The VVitch from the moment I saw it, and a re-watch on Halloween cemented my opinion that this was one of the most interesting films I’d seen all year (and definitely the best genre film, if you don’t count a certain science fiction masterpiece). The Olde-English stylization is fantastic, and really helps drop you into this bizarre world where witches and the temptations of the Devil are real. It’s like the film is cut from a time capsule, with realistic dialogue taken from historical primary sources. There’s more to appreciate than just keen artistic style, too, as the film is absolutely terrifying. Keep an eye on Anna Taylor-Joy, as well; she’s starring in the new M. Night Shamalyan film Split in the early part of next year.
The VVitch is actually one of the more traditional stories that made my list – it is perfectly linear, doesn’t involve flashbacks or departures from the main story, and really doesn’t challenge the move from a structure point. But, its stylistic offerings are absolutely off the charts. There is so much small attention to detail from director Robert Eggers, and he draws from a brilliant kernel of an idea and stays dedicated throughout the entirety of the film. The passion he has for this project is apparent, and it pays off handsomely. For all these reasons, I can’t argue with people who place The VVitch much higher on their own Top 10 lists.
Arrival is great, high-concept science fiction at its very best. There is earned heart and emotion intertwined with mind-bending awesomeness, a mixture that someone like Christopher Nolan often aspires towards but fails to strike the right balance. Denis Villeneuve doesn’t have that issue, and Arrival is just the latest example of his masterful directorial power. Amy Adams is the best thing in front of the camera, but all the performances are strong. Mostly, I love this film for the mind-bending concepts and how little the film holds your hand while revealing the underlying mechanisms of the story. I simply loved this film, and it is frankly a wonder that it couldn’t even crack my Top 5. Such is the state of film in 2016.
I promised that Amy Adams would get her due in the Nocturnal Animals section, and I saved her commendation for Arrival because it is the more accomplished performance (and her character is stronger and more likeable). Adams has definitely had a great year. Similarly, Denis Villeneuve is on an absolute tear, and things are only looking more promising with Blade Runner 2049 coming out soon. I take every opportunity to bang his drum, as I consider Villeneuve to be one of the three best directors working today. I’ve now reviewed every single one of his films on Plot and Theme, so check those out if you’re interested.
#5: Sing Street
Surprise movies like Sing Street are the reason why fantastic genre films like Arrival and The VVitch couldn’t crack the Top Five, and a major reason why watching movies is so damn rewarding. Every now and then, something that you’ve never even heard about comes out, generates some buzz, and then finally makes it to your screen. Then completely blindsides you. There was not a single film this year that raised more in my estimation from the first moment to the last, and that obviously wasn’t a product of starting so low, but of leaping so high. Sing Street is a fantastic coming-of-age musical that leans heavily on the spirit of the 1980s rock scene, but re-invigorates that peculiar genre with its own modern interpretations of those songs. It’s inherently romantic and stylized, but also a wonderful story about following one’s dreams and brotherhood. And yes, that does make it a lot like La La Land.
Which brings me to absurd quality of musicals in 2016. Two make this list, and a third (Moana) was at number 10 until I saw La La Land two days ago. Regardless, this was a strong year for musicals. This is a genre that very rarely makes much of a mark, and if it does it is usually some kind of Broadway adaptation. It is very rare that an original musical shows up on screen, especially one that isn’t a Disney animated film, and this year we got two spectacular examples. Randomly, both also have Take on Me buried somewhere in them. This is yet another testament to the wide variety of powerful films from 2016 – we got two honest-to-god musicals that could easily be the best films of the year in an off year. But in 2016, they are merely in the conversation. For lovers of film, it is a great problem to have.
#4: Hell or High Water
Continuing with the theme of surprise hits, we come to Hell or High Water. Whoa, did this come out of nowhere! This may be one of those “perfect movies” that comes by every now and then. There are at least four performances in this film that are wholly engaging: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Alberto Parker. But, much of the rest of the cast is filled in with local talent, which imbues the film with a West Texas charm that feels incredibly authentic. Director David MacKenzie paces this film beautifully, and it has some of the best, by-the-book plotting of the entire year, without all the fancy flashbacks, non-linear nonsense that I love so much. The end result is simply impeccable storytelling that grips you from the opening sequence to the semi-ambiguous ending. When one utters the bromide, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” in reference to the “dour” state of film, they simply aren’t trying hard enough. Hell or High Water should be sufficient to sate the appetite of the harshest cynic; there’s still three films to go.
So, fie on your “movies suck” narrative.
#3: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The only reason I can’t continue with the “surprise” tag on this film is because I was lucky enough to see it at a film festival back in April, and was familiar enough with Taika Waititi’s filmography (see below) to have my interest piqued sufficiently. Suffice to say, this was my #1 film at the halfway point, and it’s positioning on this list was solidified upon subsequent viewings (it is now available on HuluPlus). It is yet another coming-of-age film, but one with a little more humor and irreverence to it. Don’t think it will be all sunshine and roses, though, as there is also a great deal of poignancy and heart to the story. Sam Neill is great as a surly old farmhand, Julian Dennison is a loveable little delinquent, and the two form quite a pair. This is also probably the warmest, cheeriest film I have on my list (possible exception: Sing Street), as the Top 2 are pretty dour. So, if you’d like to be cheered up and reminded of the beauty that humanity has to offer, this would be a great place to look.
As for extra mentionables, let it be known that Taika Waititi is a badass. He crushes absolutely everything: Eagle vs. Shark, Flight of the Concords, and What We Do in the Shadows are just a few examples of his great work. Everything he does seems to be able to find a perfect balance between drama and comedy, wit and heart, and funny and sad. His characters are always endearing, and there is more thematic weight to his stories than appears at first glance. Taika Waititi is the first and last reason I am interested in Thor: Ragnarok, as you may have noticed that the superhero fare is starting to bore me with its sameness, fan-service, and milquetoast themes. Hopefully Waititi doesn’t get trampled by the bigwhigs over at Marvel, but I don’t think he will.
#2: Manchester by the Sea
I bounce back-and-forth between this film and the #1 film on my list for about three days after drafting this piece, and I am still not sure I made the right choice. Manchester by the Sea is some of the most powerful filmmaking I have seen in quite some time. There is an intricate non-linear storytelling mechanism that relies heavily on flashback, but it isn’t lazy or labored in any way. It feels essential to the story, which deals with tragedies both present and past, so travelling back to old events seems natural. To all of this brilliant organization and structure, add three of the best performances of the year: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges. Manchester by the Sea is not a movie that is fun to watch (though it is funny, charming, and warm nonetheless). But, it is more likely to reduce you to a sobbing, snotty mess than it is to raise your hopes for the future. I believe this reason alone allowed another to best this absolute behemoth of a film.
Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams deserve an additional mention for their work in this film. These two are oft forgotten when talking about the “best actors” of this generation, but certainly belong in that conversation. In Manchester by the Sea, Affleck and Williams are shoe-ins for Oscar nods (for actor and supporting actress), and you’d have to consider them as likely winners. The two interact most meaningfully in a single sequence that punches you right in the gut, remains subtle despite directly doling out information, and drives home the ultimate theme of the film all at once.
Before we get to my top film of the year, I’ll briefly address some honorable mentions, many of which were so close to making this list, and likely would have were it not for this year having so many great films.
First, I’d like to draw attention to the wonderful slate of animated films that were released this year. Moana, Zootopia, The Red Turtle, Kubo and the Two Strings, and The Little Prince were all fantastic. I think The Red Turtle was my absolute favorite, but Moana had one of the best uses of symbolism and metaphor, Kubo sported a great animation style (yay Laika!), and Zootopia was great world-building. All of these are great, if you like drawing and/or puppets, go see them.
Another “category” that got a little overshadowed due to the absurd strength of this year is the genre film. Obviously, Arrival and The VVitch cracked the list, but there were perhaps a dozen more intriguing genre flicks that I loved this year. Green Room, Don’t Breathe, The Conjuring 2,and Hush are great horror films, The Neon Demon a wonderful, artistic psychological thriller with just the right amount of madness at its core, and there were even a few example of the downright bizarre, like The Greasy Strangler and Swiss Army Man. Shane Black’s The Nice Guys could be considered a genre film, as it is a buddy cop period piece with a peculiar sense of humor (and I loved it).
Finally, a few dramas just simply ended up on the wrong side of the bubble, but were still amazing films. Fences and Loving are both nuanced, quiet, and powerful perspectives on navigating racism and finding happiness. Each film is also wonderfully performed, and I would expect a few Oscar nods to go to these movies. The Edge of Seventeen is beautiful and funny little drama / comedy that took me by surprise at the end of the year, and it was close to cracking the top ten. So was the Mike Birbiglia film Don’t Think Twice. If I didn’t like depressing weirdo movies as much as I do, it would be easy to see The Nice Guys and The Edge of Seventeen taking the place of The Lobster and Nocturnal Animals, for example.
On the documentary front, I absolutely loved Weiner, and it is an astoundingly fortuitous piece of filmmaking, that really must be seen to be believed. Not too many other wide-released docs made much of an impression on me, but I did really like Abacus: Small Enough to Jail and The Apology, both of which I reviewed over at CinemaAxis.com
Then there’s Deadpool, the only truly laudable comic book film from this year. I still love it, and think it will probably end up as one of the masterpieces of the genre, but it can’t quite compete with more serious movies that aren’t saddled with an origin story.
No, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story wasn’t close.
These are the films that were technically released this year that I didn’t get a chance to see. Sometimes that is because they weren’t released within a thousand miles of my hometown, sometimes it is because they release only a week before the new year in order to qualify for Oscars (so, I’ll get to see them in a few weeks when they go wide), and sometimes it is my fault and I am lazy.
In no particular order, I am looking forward to my chance to see: Elle (Paul Verhoeven flick), Silence, Hidden Figures, The Founder, The Handmaiden, Paterson, Midnight Special and the documentaries Tickled and Tower. I mention these specifically because I believe they each would have had the chance to make this list, if only I had seen them.
So now, without any more ridiculous stalling, my favorite film of the year is . . .
I think Moonlight is the best film of the year, partly because the subject matter is crucial, timely, and important, and partly because it is presented with wonderful aesthetic choices, superb acting, and a gorgeous cinematic eye. This film boasts an unbelievable amount of emotion and heart, and while certain sequences will definitely leave you reeling (not unlike Manchester by the Sea, actually), other will leave you soaring. It is the rare film that can devastate and exalt interchangeably, but Moonlight has it down to a science. Plot-wise, it is a coming-of-age story from the perspective of a poor black boy who is gay, told in three parts: one when he is young, one when he is a teenager, and one when he is a young adult. Different actors portray the main character in each section, though some important characters get to appear in multiple sections. Ultimately, no one aspect anointed Moonlight as my favorite of the year, it is the synthesis of all the elements, each reaching near perfection.
Such a great film earns extra commentary paragraphs. The first (this one) will remark on a particular kind of story told in Moonlight that has been mentioned a number of times already: the Coming-of-Age film. The past couple of years have had many fantastic examples of this genre, and most of them have been incredible. This year, Moonlight, Sing Street, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople could all fall into that category – and these three films really couldn’t be much different. You also got the honorable mentions The Edge of Seventeen, Moana, and Kubo and the Two Strings from this year – and a bunch more if you go back to last year (including great things like Dope). Perhaps it is just recognizing the genre more often now that I am reviewing movies on a regular basis, but this seems like an especially strong run for the genre. Of course, Spiderman: Homecoming releases this year, and will add another to the list.
Moonlight is also remarkable for being yet another powerful film released this year from a minority perspective and featuring minority actors. This list could include Fences, American Honey, Loving, The Edge of Seventeen, The Birth of a Nation, the documentary 13th and other stuff that I haven’t seen yet like Hidden Figures and I Am Not your Negro. These films and the stories they tell are culturally significant, and not in a bean-counting, #OscarsSoWhite kind of way where I am glad that they exist to meet some socially acceptable quota so that the white man can consider his tolerance duty fulfilled and then go on to ignore minority voices in filmmaking.
Raise your hand if you understand what it is like to be a poor, gay, black man raised in the projects of Miami by a drug addict mom. Now, if your hand is up, your name is most likely Tarell Alvin McCraney, and I’d like to welcome you to my blog, and comment that I have no idea what mistake led you hear, but I am grateful for your readership and I would love to talk to you about Moonlight. If, by some miracle, you are not the playwright responsible for the story on which Moonlight is based and your hand is up, then I still want to talk to you about Moonlight. I want to know your experiences, and how they were similar and different from Chiron’s, I want to know if you liked Moonlight and how it made you feel. I want your perspective.
Films like Moonlight are important because nowhere is diversity more important than in the diversity of storytelling – of imagination. Fresh and different perspective is crucial for the advancement and evolution of film, and I believe those who find themselves frustrated with the state of Hollywood and movies in general are guilty of cozying up in their own comfort zones and failing to explore the wide breadth that cinema has to offer. After a while, seeing the same old stories told by the same old people just becomes a drag, a nostalgic regurgitation of things that worked before. Fortunately, the strongest voices working in film today ooze fresh, unique perspective. So I think we’re in a good place.
It is the unique magic of movies to provide us with foreign perspectives in a visceral and emotive way; they transport us to alternate lives, realities, situations, and let us perform Atticus’s experiment of crawling around in another’s skin – if only for two hours. Please, in this upcoming year, seek out these alternative perspectives, especially those that are so well crafted.
And finally, a list for your Chapsnats. You deserve it if you made it this far:
- Manchester by the Sea
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- Hell or High Water
- Sing Street
- The VVitch
- La La Land
- Nocturnal Animals
- The Lobster