Below you will find my list of the top ten best films of 2016.
Honorable mentions include: The Edge of Seventeen, Everybody Wants Some!!, and Nocturnal Animals.
10. CERTAIN WOMEN (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Kelly Reichardt has established herself as a poet of silences: both in the literal sense, in which characters fail to summon the right words and so they say nothing at all, and in the way she imagines the sparse, open spaces that permeate her film world. Certain Women is her most direct address in expanding upon the motif in that it tells an anthology of stories in which communication is sloppy and difficult, either resulting in dramatic outbursts (Jared Harris’ pathetic and threatening client) or clumsy gestures (Michelle Williams’ wife attempting to literally rebuild the foundation of a functional family unit). If these first two stories can be met with a distance in that their dramas seem founded on self-delusions, the third of Reichardt’s stories regards a more hopeful struggle against longing. That is, whereas the other two involve the decay of professional and personal relationships, the last story carries with it the naive optimism of the birth of feeling. The way an ambiguous friendship between Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone develops is rendered sweetly by the latter’s silent dedication. And, even if audiences might predict that a last-ditch romantic gesture is ultimately misguided, Gladstone’s rancher is victorious in that she is ultimately the truest to her passions. If Reichardt isn’t attempting a crowd-pleaser in the end (one could imagine that she loves the three women of the film equally), she provides a counterpoint to the pained longing of the previous two vignettes by suggesting that longing can be a vessel for self-growth.
9. TOWER (dir. Keith Maitland)
Until 1999, the shootings that occurred at the University of Texas from the observation deck of the main tower were not officially commemorated by the school. Tower, then, seeks to stand as an appreciation for the victims of that horrible day, as well as a celebration of the selfless acts of heroism that saved lives. By telling the story of the events through the victim’s point-of-view and all but abandoning the shooter (he is barely even mentioned, let alone psychoanalyzed), Tower becomes an urgent, immediate film about the amazing things people can do for each other under remarkable trauma. In his use of rotoscope animation, Keith Maitland both creates a critical distance between the viewer and the horrors of the day (which makes the occasional uses of archival material all the more striking and vivid) and suggests the surreality of the events. That is, while mass shootings have been a plague in recent history, these events were so unexpected and unusual for the time that people even flocked towards the site of danger in their bemused curiosity, believing the sounds of gunshots to be fireworks. Between the stylization and the way Maitland orchestrates tension, the film risks being exploitative in that it fulfills a human interest in the morbid. By focusing on the victims themselves, however, the film becomes a personal story more than political one, and the touching archival interviews are constructed in a way that tells a harrowing story of bravery and sacrifice.
8. THE HANDMAIDEN (dir. Park Chan-wook)
Park Chan-wook’s successes as a genre filmmaker tend to rely entirely on his skills as a storyteller—that is, his films are puzzle boxes that include characters with obscured motivations whose actions only make sense in hindsight. Similarly, as a visual stylist, Chan-wook not only blocks his scenes with precision, but doesn’t settle until he’s evoking several conflicting visceral responses—in The Handmaiden, one of the film’s most erotic scenes involves a woman sanding down another’s teeth. If there is nothing intrinsically horrific about the scene in context, it demonstrates the filmmaker at his most kinky—that is, the grinding of bone is just as likely to evoke a response from a viewer as two women at the height of their sexual tension engaged in a perverted sort of foreplay. The Handmaiden feels like Chan-wook’s most fully realized outing until it devolves into a routine splattershow in the climax, but even that is tolerable if one appreciates that sensuality in Chan-wook films must, by their nature, become exploited to perverted, horrific extremes (although a late appearance by a cephalopod could have substituted by itself for all of the horrors that surround it). That the film is so concerned with storytelling on both a screenwriting level (it is structured so that viewers see the same scene from different perspectives) and on a textual level (erotica is a key element in the narrative) shows Chan-wook at his most self-aware, and importantly it creates an appreciation for the fact that Chan-wook has become a master of withholding—something which, by the nature of his films, is a marvel.
7. TONI ERDMANN (dir. Maren Ade)
As the eponymous alter-ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek)—a downtrodden father attempting to reconnect with (and perhaps bring humanity back to) his daughter (Sandra Hüller)—navigates corporate social gatherings, he finds himself oddly accepted. If he’s not taken at face value, at worst he’s seen as a joke that is not quite understood. Similarly, Toni Erdmann isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny in its early-goings. When Winfried arrives at a family function in Gene Simmons make-up, the absurdity of the image is dampened by the exasperated reactions he receives (evidently, those around him are sick of his style of humor). The beautiful thing about Toni Erdmann, however, and perhaps the greatest claim for the necessity of its length, is that the viewer feels both the film and Winfried himself winning them over as time passes. Perhaps its due to Hüller’s terrifically complex performance or simply a response to the climactic series of masterful comic set pieces, but more likely it is the resiliency of the goofy humor that wears down the viewer. Winfried’s false teeth and ridiculous wig becomes themselves acts of protest in the face of efficient corporate business practices. In his passive mockery of the world his daughter is invested in, Winfried reveals that her true humiliation doesn’t come through his insistent involvement in her life, but the corporate world she is a part of. As a narrative, Toni Erdmann is no different than the familiar trope of a person attempting to maintain a successful work/life balance. But as a comedy of estrangement, the film works because it is never mushy, and if the characters come to grand realizations, it’s more complex than the expected sense of renewed intimacy that comes through in the closing moments. In its resolution, Toni Erdmann is both sweet and defiantly opaque, staying true to its persistent tonal complexities.
6. LA LA LAND (dir. Damien Chazelle)
The Astaire/Rogers series of musicals are a good entry point for those uncommitted to the genre. Whereas many attempts at musicals in this century abandon human feeling in favor of artifice (Moulin Rouge), what those earlier films (and many like them) got right was that the song and dance was an extension of the emotional content, as if the performers themselves were acting out a mystical truth. In “A Lovely Night”, La La Land‘s best dance number, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone act out a scene familiar of the Astaire/Rogers classics (two people doing everything they can to convince themselves and each other that they’re not in love), where the musical number is not so much a “break” from plot development, rather a crucial development in the trajectory of the central romance. Just about all of the musical numbers function in the same way; save for the traffic jam number—that one is all spectacle, no feeling, albeit it’s worthwhile if only because director Damien Chazelle uses the opportunity to lay the groundwork in establishing the contrast between musical fancy and the doldrums of daily life in a big city. That is, if La La Land is seduced by the romance of an old musical, it is just as much a film about missed opportunities and selling out. The terrific final act finds harmony between Demy’s bittersweetness and the bombasity of Minnelli, and demonstrates Chazelle’s talent at pulling from different sources in order to create something that feels entirely its own.
5. THE INVITATION (dir. Karyn Kusama)
This slow-burn thriller casts a spell of doubt on its audience from the very beginning. Perhaps the most problematic obstacle for the viewer to feel comfortably immersed in the environment is that the protagonist, played with wonderful ambiguity by Logan Marshall-Green, might not be the most reliable narrator. He’s emotionally detached and quiet—more skeptical of his hosts than grateful, which becomes a trait the viewer only eventually comes to applaud as the events of the dinner party become more off-putting. For much of its running time, The Invitation does a great job of setting a tone of unease without doing anything particularly shocking. The red flags are so subtle that one would likely dismiss them in the context of a dinner party, where things often go unmentioned in the name of manners and civility. It’s the perfect setting to tell a story about grief and loss—Green’s very inability to participate in the rouse of dinner party behavior makes him an outcast, even if he might be the truest to his own emotions than anyone in the house (which, in a way, makes him the least dangerous). The Invitation‘s third act is serviceable if not exceptional, but things continue to spiral logically enough so as not to break the spell of immersion. But the first hour—awkward niceties offset by the occasional chord of unease—is a brilliant stretch of suspense and paranoia, recalling Jimmy Stewart’s growing suspicions in Rope.
4. KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (dir. Travis Knight)
As outlandish as the concepts of many American animated films become, they are often rooted in a sense of sameness—that is, rather than marveling at a world entirely unlike our own, films like Finding Nemo bring the audience pleasure in identifying the creative similarities between the animated world and our own (such as the morning routine of getting to school). What Kubo and the Two Strings takes from animation greats like Hayao Miyazaki is that it is committed to telling a highly immersive fairy tale wherein the only consistencies are the emotional truths. And, in retreating from the sameness of representing ordinary living, it all the better highlights its themes of grief and sorrow, and particularly how memories continue to define and guide us. Beyond its heartfelt emotional core, the film is visually arresting at every turn—if sometimes the use of computer-enhanced images seems to counteract the joy of stop-motion animation (there are scenes where the hand-crafted nature is all but lost), its smallest moments and gestures (including Monkey’s inventively created coat of fur) are what sticks.
3. MOONLIGHT (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Moonlight seeks to answer the question, “Who is you, Chiron?” not by providing an arc of redemption or soul-revealing conversations, but by instead mourning that it is a question to be asked in the first place. In a film dealing with poverty, bullying, and drug addiction amongst other things, its darkest descent into miserablism is the suggestion that someone could be robbed of an identity, compelling themselves to instead build armor as a way of protecting innermost secrets. Only when Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and a childhood friend (André Holland) reconnect in the last of three vignettes does it become apparent that the rest of the film existed only to bring the audience to this moment—Moonlight is, if anything, a procedural that documents how a man could get to the point where he finds it an impossibility to express himself honestly. Barry Jenkins stylizes the material sensually throughout, but in this climactic sequence it becomes more complicated. A brief montage of Kevin (Holland) preparing a meal could play either as Chiron’s fetishization or as an evocation of Kevin’s connection to what brings him sensual pleasure. What makes Moonlight great is that it carries the emotional weight of both—it’s a romantic image full of sadly unfulfilled, silent longing. If Jenkins’ images evoke the “feel” of a place (the climax of a sexual act depicts fingers pulling through sand), the film paradoxically suggests that Chiron deprives himself of feeling the very things that bring him pleasure.
2. SING STREET (dir. John Carney)
Even if writer-director John Carney has maintained a fixation on music as a way of bringing people together, his latest film feels very different from where he started with Once. Whereas his first feature was a small, quiet drama that hit its emotional notes slyly, Sing Street embraces the artifice and self-consciousness of 1980s entertainment—both the irresistibly corny harmonies of the pop songs and the fantastical, romanticized version of what it means to find oneself. Only through this lens is the third act tolerable, which reaches an emotional apex and asks audience to stay at that point for another few sequences. If the ending is the only part that doesn’t entirely work, just about everything else does—the music is terrific, and the young actors are wisely cast, giving shorthand characterizations just through their appearances. But the best thing about Sing Street is that, at its heart, it is a film about family. The ending title card dedicates the film to brothers everywhere, and sure enough the relationship between the young protagonist (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and his intellectual yet stagnating brother (Jack Reynor) has a beautiful sense of tenderness. Furthermore, if the bickering parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) seem too glossed over for much of the running time, there is a concluding grace note that carries with it a deep sense of empathy. Even at his most overtly sentimental, Carney is an unmistakably proficient storyteller, who in a single shot can allow one to understand the most complex of relationship dynamics.
1. PATERSON (dir. Jim Jarmusch)
To most filmmakers, patterns and routines are the stuff of nightmares—the signs that one’s life has been wasted, signifying a never-ending daily grind defined by repetition and drudgery. In Paterson, though, patterns are key to the film’s beauty. The eponymous bus driver (Adam Driver) is essentially destined to relive the same day over and over (not unlike Groundhog Day‘s Phil), but he seems okay with that. He’s content and pleasant, turning to poetry not as an escape from his daily life but as a compliment to it. In fact, his job seems to only fuel his art—the small bits of conversation he hears on the bus routinely pique his curiosity, and he often meets these passengers with an inquisitive smile. Paterson plays unlike any of Jim Jarmusch’s other films if only because of Paterson’s contentment, but it nonetheless foregrounds the director’s maintained focus on authenticity. Despite the colorful cast of characters Jarmusch has brought to the screen so far, Paterson might be his most profound glimpse into what it means to be an artist, and more specifically how to bring that art into harmony with the everyday grind.
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