Top 10 best movies of 2016
The year 2016 was a shitty one for sequels and reboots, but it was a good one for independent cinema, original and bracing science fiction, coming of age drama, heart-breaking family struggle, and astonishing musical transcendence.
To begin with, the following are my honorable mentions (in no particular order). Even if these movies weren’t the best this year had to offer, they were still worth your time and money:
- Jason Bourne 2. Train to Busan 3. Lion 4. Kubo and The Two Strings 5. The Conjuring 6. The Nice Guys 7. Sully 8. The Birth of a Nation 9. Doctor Strange 10. The Infiltrator 11. Anthropoid 12. The Infiltrator 13. Morgan 14. Green Room 15. Jungle Book 16. Captain America: Civil War 17. Me Before You. 18. Triple 9 19. Captain Fantastic 20. The Legend of Tarzan
…and now onto the champions.
Sure to be a Best Picture nominee, Moonlight is a coming-of-age tale about a homosexual African-American boy living in Florida. That basic plot description, however, does little to convey the incisive poetry of Barry Jenkins’ film, whose narrative is divided into three stages in the life of its protagonist, Chiron (aka “Little” as an adolescent, and “Black” as an adult). As Chiron grows up, enjoying fleeting moments of euphoria amidst routine abuse and neglect, Jenkins charts thorny individual and interpersonal dynamics in which both salvation and damnation seem to stem from the same (or, at least, similar) source. Sensitive, subtle, intense and complex, it’s a triumph of both expressive direction and nuanced, heart-rending performance.
- Edge of Seventeen
Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen is a pitch-perfect portrait of youth, and the struggles of learning to accept yourself for who you are. It’ll have you laughing and crying, sometimes in the same scene, and never feels anything other than sincere and authentic. The Edge of Seventeen’s sharp script – and Hailee Steinfeld’s outstanding lead performance – make this more than just another coming-of-age dramedy. There simply was not a better teen-movie this year.
At this point, it’s no trick to concoct a franchise superhero movie that delivers the action/eye-popping/saving-the-world goods. But how do you make one that’s genuinely out-of-the-box thrilling? You do it by giving us an anti-superhero (Ryan Reynolds) with a face like the Phantom of the Opera, an attitude darker than Jean-Paul Sartre’s, and a wit like rusty barb wire. And you do it by having the movie itself mirror his cutthroat bravura: Tim Miller, in his first feature, directs with a zigzag nihilistic flash that makes every scene a surprise.
- La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s starry-eyed confection of a musical is the rare modern movie that does the thing we all (in our hidden hearts) long for: it puts you — and leaves you — in a trance. It’s set against a twinkling magic-hour L.A., with Ryan Gosling’s short-fused jazz snob and Emma Stone’s sharp-tongued aspiring actress melting through each other’s defenses until they’re dancing on air. But just when you think you’ve got it pegged as a newfangled, old-fashioned love story, “La La Land” becomes the ravishingly downbeat tale of what it takes to make creative dreamers tick. Justin Hurwitz’s melodies are irresistible in such a bittersweet way that they leave you in a teary swoon.
- Hell or High Water
Neo-Westerns have perhaps become a more popular genre than their precursor: The Western. Hell or High Water is among the best ones you’ll ever see. It’s a classic cops and robbers story, shot in a stark, plain style – just like those classic John Ford movies. It features terrific central performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster (who play bank robber brothers) and Jeff Bridges (who plays the cop hot on their trail). Hell or High Water is a terrific piece of entertainment, the movie that serious moviegoers waited all summer to see. Not because it contains overhyped superheroes or animated critters, but because it has none of those. It isn’t a highbrow indie but a gritty work of art. Mackenzie’s movie thrills for all the right reasons and will be fondly remembered at year’s end. It was this summer’s greatest film.
- Nocturnal Animals
A layered, masterful work of interwoven storylines mixed with crime-drama craft, infused with the same kind of pulsating, West Texas-vibes we saw so beautifully in Hell or High Water, and multilayered storytelling at its finest, the film features gifted actors throwing themselves into performances that require massive versatility between scenes.
- Manchester by the Sea
“Devastation” is a word that’s been overused just enough to numb its meaning, but Kenneth Lonergan’s exquisitely sculpted drama never lets us forget what it means: The movie is about a man who’s a walking case of devastation — and with good reason. He destroyed everything he loved. Is there hope for him? That’s the question that powers Casey Affleck’s magnetically surly lost-soul performance. And it’s a question the movie confronts with masterly precision — and with a kind of cold biting wintry wit, as Affleck’s Lee, a Massachusetts handyman, steps up to become the guardian of his nephew while searching for a redemption that almost any other movie — i.e., one less bold than this one — would have given him. There’s a huge chance Affleck will win an Oscar for his performance.
- The Handmaiden
Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ fantastic romantic novel Fingersmith moves the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, and brings in the obsession with bloody revenge that Park explored in Oldboy, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, and other films. But it’s still a remarkably close adaptation. Park preserves the surprise romance, the creepy mystery, and the startling twists, as a young Korean criminal agrees to help a con man seduce a rich, sheltered shut-in. But Park plays up the erotic horror, and the pain and satisfaction of first loves, until the tension becomes nearly unbearable. Don’t let the fact that it’s a foreign movie with subtitles scare you off. The performances are elegant and startling, and the composition is endlessly striking — this is a lavish banquet of a film — but the compelling story is what makes all the agony and ecstasy meaningful.
- Eye in the Sky
Aside from the fact that it contains the late, great Alan Rickman’s final performance, Eye in the Sky is one of the few war films attempting to depict modern warfare realistically. It’s not fetishizing spy technology, nor loudly proclaiming its pitfalls. And yes, ambiguity can be frustrating to watch, but shouldn’t it be? Nothing about drone war is simple, and being baffled by its problems is the point of Eye in the Sky—even if it is just political theater. As drone warfare continues its slow march into public consciousness, Eye in the Sky is the best movie yet to tackle the legal and moral quagmire surrounding modern technological warfare.
Continuing the trend of mercifully smart science fiction that has cropped up in recent years, Arrival is a celebration of intellectualism and the smart people whose contributions shouldn’t be a thing of scorn. It is also a knotty thinker that demands patience, attention, and time, all of which pay off in dividends with a mind-bending finale that forced millions of moviegoers to learn the term “linguistic relativity.”
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is an exquisitely crafted puzzle box that treats the idea of the first contact with the kind of weight and grandeur most Hollywood sci-fi efforts blunder past with maximum stupidity. As a result, Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics, and Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, a mathematician and physicist, are not here to pass the torch to the “average joe” hero in a wife-beater. They instead challenge our understandings of communication by trying to connect both intellectually and emotionally with unknowable aliens. One of the most handsome-looking and enigmatic films of the year, everything about Arrival, from its hypnotic score to its circuitous screenplay and editing, finds a way to slither into your mind, lingering like the first notes of a new universal language. In my humble opinion, this is the best film 2016 had to offer.