2016 was a movie year with interesting dichotomies. On the one hand, many studio films and sequels fell flat (particularly over the summer). On the other hand, it was a fantastic year for independent cinema, surprise original genre hits, and social/political documentaries. For me personally, it was the first year I attended the Sundance Film Festival, and managed to see a personal best 75 films released this year. Of those films, here were my favorites (presented here as [spoiler-free] unless otherwise noted).
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
If you’re surprised to see the first Star Wars spinoff on my list, so am I. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is by far my favorite Star Wars movie made in my lifetime, and I feel the same way about this one that many felt about The Force Awakens. Many have commented on the characters in Rogue One falling flat (especially compared to Episode 7), and I can’t really argue against that. Where Rogue One excels, however, is in the story and the stakes. Ironically, for a story with a known ending (spoilers: they succeed in getting the Death Star plans), it is somehow the most tense of the series. This is because it’s the first time we’ve seen a Star Wars movie where main characters are expendable. Rogue One is a true war film in that all characters are fighting for something much bigger than themselves, and their sacrifices feel so much heavier because the audience is thoroughly aware of what is at stake. This core theme is what I appreciate most about this movie: find a cause that’s bigger than yourself, and fight for it.
10 Cloverfield Lane
This was an excellent year for “trapped in a building with sinister people” thrillers. Green Room and Don’t Breathe are both extremely tense, and excellent genre films. My favorite of these, however, is 10 Cloverfield Lane. I already wrote about my love of the opening sequence in this film, and the rest of it lives up to those lofty expectations. This movie is claustrophobic from start to finish, with John Goodman putting in an Oscar-worthy performance as kidnapper and keeper of the castle. The direction in this film is what makes it tick, and it makes me very excited to see what Dan Trachtenberg tackles next. Really, the film’s trailer says it all:
Another film that I’ve written a piece about, Captain Fantastic is a fascinating take on the enormous power and responsibility that comes with parenting. Viggo Mortensen puts in a stellar performance as a father raising his children “off the grid,” teaching them survival skills and expert-level philosophy in a liberal fantasy utopia. What I find so important about Captain Fantastic is its willingness to see arguments from multiple sides. What is presented as essentially perfect at the beginning is revealed to be downright dangerous by the end.
It kills me to not find a way to fit Park Chan-wook’s latest work of genius, The Handmaiden, onto my list. This film has many of the common features of Chan-wook’s films: gorgeous cinematography, a mysterious plot full of twists and turns, even a touch of vengeance. The Handmaiden puts the audience in a tricky situation. It condemns the objectification of women and can be read as a female empowerment narrative, and yet, at times, it revels in the sexual acts of its characters. This is a beautiful film with an amazing score, and one that won’t disappoint lovers of Korean cinema.
TOP 10 OF 2016
Zootopia is a fantastic example of tight, three-act cinema storytelling. It tells the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rookie-cop rabbit who is trying to uncover a caper with the help of unlikely con-fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). The film’s themes of racial fear-mongering and prejudice resonate particularly strongly today. One of my favorite moments of this movie is that one of the central conflicts of the film is directly caused by Judy. Even though she has fought hard against preconceptions to get where she is, Judy accidentally unleashes a wave of discrimination against all carnivores (and, by extension, Nick) without even realizing it. Zootopia revels in film and television detective and cop tropes, and is a great example of a parody film being a solid entry into the genre it’s lampooning. Above all else, this film is entertaining and funny throughout, and is truly one of the best original films that Disney has made in years.
Krisha tells the story of an estranged mother who struggles with substance abuse as she returns home for a family Thanksgiving. What this film does better than any I have seen is to put the audience inside the head of an addict and paint them as both victim and villain. I’ve heard this film compared to a horror movie at times, and it’s easy to see why. Krisha tries so hard to connect with her family members, but from the schizophrenic music and dread-filled tone, the audience knows from the beginning this is doomed to disaster. This is clearly a very personal story to first-time filmmaker Trey Edward Shults; the script feels straight out of his own life, and he even employs his own family as the entire cast. I cannot wait to see what he does next with true horror film It Comes at Night later this year.
Weiner is the perfect documentary for the moment, following the political campaign of Anthony Weiner after his first Twitter dick-pic scandal. This movie has so much on its mind. On the one hand, it’s a Shakespearian tragedy, as Weiner regains the public’s trust only to throw it all away on yet another scandal. It’s a story of addiction; Weiner wants nothing more than to fight for the people of New York City, but simply cannot help but sabotage himself by succumbing to his vice. Perhaps most presciently, it is a story of the media’s role in modern politics, and how the public can be more interested in entertainment and scandal than which politician has their best interest in mind. In many ways, Weiner feels like a foreshadowing of the media circus that became of the 2016 presidential election.
Moonlight was the hardest film for me to place, as it is certainly the film of the year. It tells the story of one boy/man, Chiron, who struggles with forging his identity as he discovers his sexuality. As I mentioned in my “best stuff” list, it is the direction of Barry Jenkins that truly makes this film work. This is a singular orchestral vision of a film, from its beautiful, sweeping score to the gorgeous images put to screen. Moonlight also features one of the best trailers of the year, one that feels almost like a short film that encapsulates all of the emotions of the full feature. Jenkins channels Terrance Malick by maintaining a very contemplative tone, and much like 2011’s The Tree of Life, Moonlight will likely be remembered as the film of 2016 regardless of its Oscar fate.
6. O.J. Made in America
“I’m not black, I’m O.J.” By some standards, ESPN’s 7.5-hour 30-for-30 O.J. Made in America may not even qualify as a film, but given that it’s nominated for an Oscar, I’m going to consider it eligible. O.J. Made in America chronicles both the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson, from the beginning of his career, through the trial, and beyond. What this film is really about, though, is privilege. Part 2 of the series chronicles the struggles of the black community during the Civil Rights Movement, all the while O.J. enjoys the privileges of his celebrity. Later, when O.J. goes to trial, it is his money and fame, and the exploitation of justified rage in the black community that affords him an amazing trial team and an eventual acquittal. What is so incredible about this film is how resonant so many events are to the events of today. It is seriously chilling to watch as half the country reacts in horror to O.J.’s acquittal while the other half shows jubilation. O.J. Made in America is quite the commitment, but it is easily the must-see documentary of the year.
5. The Lobster
My girlfriend may kill me for putting this one on the list (she hated this movie). The Lobster is a pitch-black comedy where single people have forty-five days to find a mate, or they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. This is easily the most original screenplay of the year. Every scene is dripping in satire about the nature of romance in society, or how single people view couples and vice versa. It is deeply cynical, frequently offensive, but also hilarious and explores a side of relationships rarely seen on screen. Warning: IMDB bills this as a romance, but do not see this on a date.
4. La La Land
The sure-to-be darling of the Oscars, La La Land deserves most of the praise it’s getting. For those who haven’t seen it yet, La La Land is a musical centered around chasing grand dreams in the City of Angels. There are two things that really stick out to me about La La Land, both of which will require some mild [spoilers]. First off, the film is expertly paced as a musical to convey the romantic sense of magic in love and dreams, only gradually morph into a drama as reality sets in. The music only returns as Mia (Emma Stone) gives her acting career one last shot. And, of course, the full-fledged magic of the beginning of the film only returns in the film’s fantastic final moments.
The second thing I really appreciate about La La Land is its message of compromise in pursuing your dreams. The audience is brought to believe that Sebastian and Mia are meant to be together, but ultimately their pursuits are too ambitious and rigid, and their relationship is broken as a result. Sebastian ultimately compromises on the name and location of his jazz club. Some have argued that a major flaw with La La Land is that both Mia and Sebastian end up successful in pursuits that mostly result in failure. It’s hard to argue with that complaint, as Damien Chazelle comes from a place of success where so many have failed. Still, I believe the themes are universal enough to apply to most lofty dreams, and the idea of compromising goals is one that resonates with me.
3. The Witch
I’ve already written quite a bit on The Witch, which tells the story of a Puritan family that has been exiled by their community for the sin of pride. What I love so much about The Witch is that the story is presented as though the lens of Puritanical society. The film punishes its characters for their pride before God their Original Sin. Even more than a great horror movie, it is a great period film that provides deft understanding of the culture, speech patterns, and most importantly, fears of the time.
2. 20th Century Women
One of my biggest surprises of the year was 20th Century Women. This is a film that is basically just following its five main characters through a couple of weeks in their lives in the summer of ’79. There is not much plot throughout the film, and yet the characters are so compelling, you just want to spend more time with them. One of my favorite elements of 20th Century Women is its unwillingness to choose a central character, instead showing the perspective of all five. While frequently being a film about small relationships, it will occasionally take a much grander scope, giving a character’s full backstory from start to finish, or changing the context by narrating events of the future. This is a very contemplative film, one that invites reflection and meditation on the other people in your own life, and for that alone is one of my favorites of the year.
Arrival is everything I want out of a sci-fi film. It is a smart, well-conceived mystery about extraterrestrials arriving on Earth, and humanity’s attempt to figure out why they are here. This movie does so many things right. New information is revealed only as Louise (Amy Adams) learns it, and the audience’s intelligence is continuously respected. Research is presented as difficult and time-consuming, with a whole team of people working around the clock to decipher the alien language. The central theme of global communication is one that is particularly relevant in an age of uncertain diplomatic relations. Arrival even presents large questions about free-will and determinism, all with a very strong emotional core and ending. Denis Villenueve is a superb director who has cemented himself as one of the best in the industry. He will be directing the upcoming Blade Runner sequel later this year.
So there you have it, my top 10 films of 2016. If you want to read more about my thoughts on 2016, check out my other list here. Feel free to leave any comments below. It’s been an excellent year for film, and I’m looking forward to starting a new list for 2017!