The Top Ten Films of 2016
Before we get started, I must confess something: I did not enjoy writing this column. And let me, in my by now legendarily long-winded way, tell you why. Movies, as an art form and shared cultural experience, are magical because, when the lights dim and the never-ending cascade of production company logos start, your brain begins the chemical process of drowning out the real world to dive into something much more fantastical and dramatic. But in 2016, didn’t the real world seem to be much more fantastical and dramatic than any movie you saw? Not that you need it, but a recap: nearly half of your favorites artists passed away, gun violence in America set a horrible record, the world’s temperature hit a new record high for the third straight year in a row, and terrorist attacks around the world seemed to happen with horrifying frequency. There was an Olympics. There was a refugee crisis. The Cubs won the World Series. And there was an election. This was a year that was so full of the emotional highs and LOWS that we most often experience when we sit in a dark theater for a couple of hours. The only problem is that in the theater you are invited (nay, encouraged) to suspend your disbelief, to let go of all the little thoughts in the back of your head that tell you, “Oh well that would never happen” or “This is clearly fake” or “Ryan Gosling isn’t that great of a singer. Why is he singing?” If only we could have so freely suspended our doubts and criticisms and fears over the headlines we saw the past twelve months.
So have no doubt. The best movie of 2016 was 2016 itself. How can you try to put a bow on that?
A quick personal note: of all the wonderful icons and artists we lost in 2016, no death hit me harder than that of Carrie Fisher (a nice kick in the nuts right at the end of the year. Thanks 2016!) My early childhood consisted of a rock solid rotation of the original Star Wars trilogy and (for better of worse) the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Bless my mother for she probably had to endure watching one of those films everyday for five years. To this day I’m surprised she doesn’t quote Arnold Schwarzenegger puns from 1997’s Batman & Robin as much as I do. Anyways, as a young child watching Star Wars as much as I did, I always took comfort in knowing that the real Han, Luke, and Leia were out there somewhere. At that age, I really wanted to meet them, to tell them how much I enjoyed their movies and to ask them, with no pretension, “So yo, what was making Star Wars like?” As I grew up, I always took it for granted that they were still out there, that I could still find myself bumping in to them so I could tell them what they meant to me. Reading of Carrie Fisher’s passing shattered that childhood comfort and I was sad at how selfish I was for thinking the three of them would all live forever.
But anyways, do you want to talk about some movies now? As always, what follows are my pure and unwavering thoughts on the films of the past year. And also, as always, I begin with a startling disclaimer...
I did not see every movie that came out in 2016. Between crying at the CNN news ticker and, ya know, paying my bills, I did not get out to all the wonderful offerings that the world of cinema gave us. I did see a lot, but I will specifically weep lamentations over the following films that I missed:
NOTABLE MISSES (in alphabetical order)
Captain Fantastic, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion, Loving
For the sake of this exercise, assume I saw everything else (I didn’t).
Now, as you may already know, I am a firm believer that a Top Ten list should strictly be ten films. This is because I believe the whole point of this endeavor is to eventually compare these arbitrary annual lists to one another. To hold up 2016 to, say, 2012 and see what happens. In this way, over time we will be able to build a much more cohesive view of whole decades worth of cinema, not just one year. To play wishy-washy with the number from year to year would throw off the exercise. That being said, I always like to shout out a few films that did not quite make the cut, if for no other reason then to put the ten finalists in greater context:
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order)
10 Cloverfield Lane, Midnight Special, Nocturnal Animals
Alright, now let’s get this over with.
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2016
10. Hail, Caesar!
Leave it to the Coen Brothers to drop a perfectly fine little film in the middle of February that, by this time of year, most people have forgotten as being perfectly fine and little. The brothers make a film like this look incredible easy, but consider that it is a period piece centered on communists kidnapping a movie star and I’m sure it was anything but. In a year like 2016, watching A-list movie stars breezily pitch relief innings in a Coen Brother’s film was a delight that I can only recognize now looking back on it.
Dennis Villeneuve is steadily becoming one of our more reliable auteurs. His film here continues his hot streak started with his Oscar nominated Incendies in 2010. This film, about giant alien ice cream scoopers appearing out of nowhere, relies too much on voiceover segments that yada-yada the whole middle section of the story, but an earnest performance by an always excellent Amy Adams and a never-more-appropriate theme of finding common ground with each other help keep this film afloat. Plus, I always appreciate films like this – adult dramas that are not trying to start the next great superhero franchise. The film has made over $160 million, so I’m baffled as to why there aren’t more movies like this every year.
8. Toni Erdmann
Some say this German-Austrian film by Maren Ade is a subtle metaphor about the decline of modern Europe. I’m not smart enough to pull that analysis out of my ass, but what I did get out of the film though was the tender story of a woman reconnecting with her father told with a light touch and not-too-cynical sense of humor. This film is about an hour too long, but the hilarious climax and tender ending are worth the marathon effort it takes to get there. Shout out to Sandra Hüller for her fearless performance as a career-driven woman forced to reckon with her eccentric father.
Enter Best Picture Contender #1. For good reason, Barry Jenkin’s intimate portrait of a young black man discovering his sexuality while dealing with abuse from bullies and a drug-addicted mother deserves all the attention it has received. Initially, the film falls for some common indie tropes. How many times have we seen a thoughtful parent/mentor figure sit down with an impressionable young protagonist to tell a story from their childhood, riddled with symbolism and delivered with “This is the theme of the movie” heft. But as we progress from one chapter of Chiron’s life to the next, we see Jenkins’ skill shine through. He expertly builds suspense, directing his actors to dance around the questions they really want to ask, to confess the things that are really on their hearts. This is not an easy thing to do, but Jenkins masterfully paces his scenes to achieve the hardest emotional punches.
6. O.J.: Made In America
I still don’t feel comfortable putting this film on this list. You’re telling me this seven and a half hour documentary that initially aired to the public as a five-part miniseries on ESPN is a movie to be judged and compared to other movies that only have two to three hours to tell their story? I don’t quite see it, but hell, I don’t make the rules and this piece by Ezra Edelman is brilliant so here we are. This film is really two documentaries, one about the athlete O.J. Simpson and the other about race relations in the city of Los Angeles. The brilliance of the film is how Edelman expertly dovetails the two studies together to create a powerful and searing climax. He undoubtedly proves that the story of O.J. Simpson is one that cannot be told without also telling the stories of racial injustice in America. Of all the works presented this year, none seemed to quite speak to the modern times as much as this.
5. Hell or High Water
David Mackenzie’s film is exemplary purely for its quiet simplicity. The story of two brothers, forced to turn to crime in order to save what is rightfully theirs, and the Texas Ranger, inches away from retirement, tasked with bringing them in. Mackenzie keeps the film tight, proving that a small story with a few carefully considered characters can at times say much more then a sweeping melodramatic epic that stars half of Hollywood. The film has a keen eye for setting, placing our characters in a Texas outback that has been ravaged by the recession. The film passes through town after town that is probably filled with the disenchanted white working-class voters that propelled Donald Trump to the Presidency. Mackenzie might have inadvertently made a film that answers the question, “How did that guy get elected?”
4. Manchester By the Sea
This film on trauma, suffering, and loss is not a fun night out at the movies. It is sad. Very sad. With this film, Kenneth Lonergan boldly states that there are just some wounds we can never fully recover from. A lesser film would present this idea and then bail out on it right at the end. Lonergan understands that simply giving the audience what they want would destroy the message of his film. This is not to say that the film is hopeless or unnecessarily bleak. Through their relationship, Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges highlight the bonds that form when families are confronted with tragedy. We have no doubt that these two characters are made better by being around one another. But instead of using their relationship as a tonic for every problem the characters face, Lonergan instead stresses that sometimes just teaching each other how to cope, and nothing more, is all we can really do for each other.
Martin Scorsese spent almost 30 years trying to get this movie made and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s hardly an audience-friendly film. It’s really long, a third of it is in another language, and it features multiple scenes of brutal human torture. Sounds like a fun night at the movies! However, I believe the real reason this film took so long to make was because it deals with some profound questions of faith, which is historically a very tricky thing to depict on film. Credit to Scorsese then for creating an epic that clearly and unashamedly grapples with the uncertainty of believing in God. The film openly wonders about the flaws of evangelism and the crippling doubt associated with God’s supposed silence in the face of persecution. This here is what a real faith-based film looks like (which is why it is a damn shame that Christian audiences haven’t embraced this film near as much as they have embraced the self-aggrandizing schlock of the God’s Not Dead variety.) This won’t be a film you’ll want to watch again after you see it, but once is enough for it to leave its mark. A quick shout out to Liam Neeson for delivering the best supporting performance of 2016.
2. La La Land
Enter Best Picture Contender #2. The backlash to Damien Chazelle’s homage to the classic Hollywood musical has kicked in right on schedule. As we are wont to do in these modern times, nothing can be unanimously adored anymore. The counter culture hipster buried inside of all of us simply won’t allow it. So as Chazelle’s film reaped uncontested praises and adulation throughout the fall, it felt right that in late December and early January we started to see headlines like “Why La La Land Isn’t THAT Great.” But however natural the backlash may be, it cannot overcome the fact that this was a damn fine film – and wasn’t that all we could ask for from 2016? In order for this film to fulfill its promise to its audience, here’s all it needed to do: tell a gooey love story that will make you feel some things at the end, have a few catchy tunes, and – above all – let two capital “M”, capital “S” Movie Stars do their thing without anybody getting in their way. This is not new Emma Stone and new Ryan Gosling. But that’s not why we came to this movie. Whatever preconceived notions you had in your head of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone is what you wanted to see singing and dancing and kissing on screen and, by God, this film gave you that. Of all the films on this list, this is the one that I guarantee you young couples will be watching on stay-at-home date nights ten years from now. For all the stuffy criticism we can lay on movies, at the end of the day, there’s a lot value to that.
In a year that featured one of the most exhausting and divisive elections in history, it only makes sense that the film that impacted me the most this year is one that detailed one of the most dramatic slices of presidential history. I normally hate biopics because they are typically devoid of style and they sanctify their subjects to an unnecessary degree. Pablo Larraín has made a film here that thankfully does neither of those things. In what was clearly pitched as, “Let’s get Natalie Portman another Oscar” this film instead left me thinking not of her performance but of the reality of the events the film depicts. I think it is easy for us to get caught up in the moment of today, to think that what is happening right now is the craziest it has ever been. We want to scream that the sky is falling and decry the troubles we are facing now as the toughest we have ever faced. In Jackie, we are reminded that at one point in our history the President of the United States was shot on live television. In my life, I had always built up the Kennedy assassination as a legend of mythical figures, as a soap opera full of drama and suspense. In his film, Larraín implores you to remember these men and women not as characters in a textbook, but as real people who faced very real uncertainty and sorrow. This really happened. I’m not trying to diminish the fears and concerns of citizens as we head into 2017. I share many of them. But Jackie reminded me that the history of America is full of periods of dread, of anxiety, of anger, of fear. But guess what? We’re still here. Also, yeah – Natalie should totally get another Oscar.