One of the few silver linings to an otherwise utterly wretched 2016 was the remarkable quality and variety of its movies. Even as we cringed at a presidential race that deteriorated from circus to nightmare, witnessed countries around the world succumbing to their basest us-vs-them instincts, watched helplessly as fascist regimes tightened their chokeholds on power, and mourned a seemingly endless parade of deaths of humankind's best and brightest, there was nearly always solace and temporary escape to be found at the movies. But as I reflect on the movies that made the strongest impression on me, I’m struck by how divided they are between movies brimming with the warmth and joy of human connection and movies that were unsparingly harsh in their view of humanity. (Tellingly, my #1 movie managed to be both.) Perhaps this whiplash says something about the state of my own mind and my extremely conflicted feelings about my fellow humans. But it in no way detracts from my love for these films.
Young black boy grows up introverted, gay, poor, and bullied, with few friends and a crack-addicted single mom – sounds like a recipe for misery, doesn’t it? But while there’s certainly great pain in “Moonlight,” there’s also great beauty and tenderness that acts as a much-needed salve for the pain. As much as it’s about loneliness and alienation, it’s more fundamentally about the universal hunger for love and affection, for the feeling that one belongs, that one's seen
by and matters
to someone else. Director Barry Jenkins manages to combine the structural formality of a three-act play with a cinematic richness and an emotional intimacy that resonates on both big screens and small.
2. LA LA LAND
Everything you’ve heard about it is true. An extraordinary labor of love by wunderkund writer-director Damien Chazelle, it’s a brilliantly-hued paean to Los Angeles, to old-school jazz (what else would you expect from the guy behind “Whiplash”?), and to the grand tradition of movie-musicals, from “Singin’ in the Rain” to Jacques Demy. So if you have affection for any of these things—or for Emma Stone and/or Ryan Gosling, who are both at their most beguiling here—you’ll enjoy the movie as much as I did. Yes, it arguably borrows more than it creates; no, the love story isn’t particularly original; and no, it doesn’t have quite the depth of “Moonlight” or some of the other films on this list. But damned if it isn’t the one that feels most like a treat. By turns exuberant and wistful, with a core of delicate melancholy beneath its candy-colored surface, it lingers like a ghostly chord or a bittersweet memory of a love long past.
3. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
Mike Mills’ answer to “All About My Mother” is less a coming-of-age tale than a snapshot of a specific place and moment (SoCal in the 1970s) and the most formative, mostly female figures in an adolescent boy’s life at that moment. It’s boosted by terrific acting across the board by Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann, but the crown jewel is Annette Bening’s marvelous, beautifully layered performance as the complex, memorable, yet ultimately elusive woman at their center. Loose and largely plotless in structure, warm without being sentimental, and funny without trying to be witty, this is a movie that may not hit you right out of the gate but stays with you long after seeing it.
4. HELL OR HIGH WATER
There’s a reason the most unexpected sleeper hit of last summer is still generating buzz months later, at the height of Oscar season. A brisk, sharp drama about two Texas brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both excellent) who for highly specific reasons engage in a highly strategic, even surgical series of bank robberies, it’s also an engaging character study of both the brothers and the two marshals who doggedly pursue them (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, also excellent), a critical commentary on the socio-economic circumstances that created them, and an understated yet evocative portrait of a broader society in silent decline. As such, the film feels simultaneously like a throwback and a product of the current moment – timely and
timeless. It also benefits from a tight, well-paced script that expertly balances tension and humor. There’s not an ounce of fat in the narrative, not a line that feels extraneous or a beat that feels out of place. Rarely does a Hollywood movie deliver so effectively on the old adage “less is more.”
5. THE LOBSTER
This is a movie that’s guaranteed to make you squirm. (Though it’s almost cuddly compared to director Yorgos Lanthimos’ even weirder and more unnerving “Dogtooth.”) With its bleakly antiseptic yet surreal vision of a society in which every human must, upon losing a mate, find a new one within a short prescribed stay at a “resort” full of fellow newly single guests or be turned into an animal—or else hide in the wilderness with a band of outcasts for whom love is verboten—it’s hard to tell if the film is satire, allegory, science fiction, all or none of the above. Not that it matters. What does matter is the absurdist mirror it holds up to our own society’s rituals and mores governing love, partnership, and lack thereof, and the revelation that they aren’t any less arbitrary than those of the bizarre alternate reality on the screen before us. Assisted by the wonderfully deadpan affect of a stellar cast that includes Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, and John C. Reilly, the film’s detachment is sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, sometimes both, but never less than brilliant.
6. SING STREET
If “The Lobster” is guaranteed to make you squirm, here’s a delightful little pick-me-up that’s guaranteed to make you smile. While “La La Land” has been getting all the buzz for making musical movies hip again, John Carney (“Once,” “Begin Again”) has already been doing that for years now in his own low-key but just as charming way. “Sing Street,” Carney’s best yet, is at once a poignant nod to his less-than-idyllic youth in ’80s Dublin and a buoyant love letter to the music of that era. Here, that music provides the hook – in all senses – for an adolescent boy to court the girl of his dreams, and it’s both a hoot and a joy to watch the boy and his self-starter band cycle through seemingly every musical trend of that period. Sure, the band is way too talented and polished to be entirely believable, but that’s an easy flaw to forgive when the results are so pleasing.
I went into this film expecting to hate it, and came out of it a little stunned and unsure what I thought of it…except that I knew I didn’t
hate it. Now, with reflection, I think it’s the boldest, most gripping movie I saw last year. It's controversial for a reason; I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone who’s been a victim of sexual assault, and I have qualms about how its subversive take on the subject might be (mis)interpreted by some viewers. But for everyone else, there’s a bottomless mine of fascinating material beneath the smooth-as-silk direction of Paul Verhoeven, who's no stranger to controversy and knows how to make it an asset rather than a liability. French screen legend Isabelle Huppert takes no prisoners as Michelle, the coolly stylish, quietly ball-busting female executive whom nothing seems to faze – not even the brutal rape that sets off the narrative and is replayed several times throughout the film. Those scenes are not for the faint of heart, but neither do they feel gratuitous or exploitative. What’s almost more disturbing is Michelle’s reaction: without giving too much away, let's just say she throws the usual script for a rape victim completely out the window. And although she eventually gets her revenge, you may not like how she gets there or what it reveals about her character. But you can’t deny the provocative power of her journey.
There’s good acting, there’s great acting, and there’s acting that sends chills up your spine. If you want to know what that last one feels like, go see “Fences” immediately. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their Tony-winning roles from August Wilson’s classic play about a black garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh who’s never quite able to shake off a lifetime of resentment over his unfulfilled dreams. While Denzel completely and convincingly inhabits the central role of Troy Maxson, a man at once larger than life and shrunken by disappointment, Viola steals the show as Troy’s wife Rose, who goes from quietly supporting to towering over him, and it’s a sight to behold. A small supporting cast rounds out this master class in acting—Stephen Henderson is a particular standout as Troy’s friend Bono, but they’re all superb. Denzel, who also directs, remains rigorously faithful to Wilson’s text; from the extended monologues to the circumscribed physical settings, you never forget you’re watching a play. But in a way, that’s a strength rather than a weakness; with a script and performances this powerful, you don’t need any stylistic distractions.
9. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s greatest strength has always been his ability to probe compassionately
into the messy, complicated mix of feelings underpinning the ties that bind, and to translate that insight into dialogue that sounds like actual human conversation. That ability’s on full display here in this literally and figuratively wintry New England tale of a man (Casey Affleck) who’s just barely going through the motions of living after suffering an unspeakable tragedy, only to return to the scene of that tragedy when he’s unexpectedly appointed guardian of his nephew (Lucas Hedges). The film’s anchored by strong, lived-in performances and graced by comic notes that offset the deep underlying sadness of the story and underscore the quiet absurdity of the characters’ everyday, mundane lives. (If Lonergan, who’s also a playwright, has a dramatic forefather, it’s gotta be Chekhov.) The movie’s not perfect: though not nearly as baggy as “Margaret,” it feels like it could be tightened up a bit, as Casey Affleck’s protagonist goes through perhaps one self-destructive cycle too many without the benefit of a true catharsis. That’s par for the course for Lonergan, though; he doesn’t really do tidy emotional closures, no doubt because life so seldom provides them.
10. Tie: EVERYBODY WANTS SOME! and JACKIE
An admittedly odd pairing that exemplifies the “warm/cold” divide of the movies I rated most highly in 2016. On the one hand, you’ve got Richard Linklater’s relaxed, indulgent, typically Linklater-ish sketch of a group of male college freshmen jocks just beginning to learn to navigate their new world: sure, they’re a bunch of idiots, constantly horny and constantly trying to prank and one-up each other, yet there’s something at once funny and innocent about their ritualistic male bonding-through-rivalry that makes them endlessly watchable - even if you wonder about the darker side of their id that Linklater always seems so loath to show. At the opposite extreme, tonally and thematically, you have a gorgeous yet severe psychological close-up of one of the most famous women in the world at her lowest point, seeking to assert control over her husband’s legacy and her own image in the immediate aftermath of his assassination. Director Pablo Larrain brings an outsider’s eye to the mythos of Camelot and its carefully constructed nature; perhaps for that reason, despite the lush cinematography, “Jackie” feels deliberately distant, its mood at once elegiacally hushed and rife with undercurrents of tension that seem to throb in time to the chilly, unsettling score. What gives the film its animating force is Natalie Portman, who despite looking nothing like Jackie commits admirably to the role, conveying both the fragility of her patrician veneer and the fierce, desperate resolve just underneath.
Arrival, The Fits, Paterson, The Handmaiden, American Honey, Aquarius
...and really many others could've made this list, but I had to stop somewhere.
Caveat: I have not seen SILENCE, THE SALESMAN, KRISHA, HACKSAW RIDGE or (shamefully) *any* documentaries from 2016.