Jared’s Best Films of 2016
2016 was a bad year. Except when it came to movies. As a movie year, 2016 excelled. That’s why I’ve listed 50 films this year. Yes, 50! From 2016! All worth seeing! Of course, I still regret missing a handful of movies (notably, Being 17, Closet Monster, Demon, Divines, Fire at Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, Lion, Neruda, Patriots Day, Shin Godzilla, and Your Name), but I’m pleased with how this list shaped up.
Below you will find my 50 favorite movies of the year split into four categories. “Best of the Rest” is roughly thirty solid films that deserve attention. “Honorable Mentions” is self-explanatory. “Standouts” is basically the #10-2 range, though I didn’t rank them. And “Film(s) of the Year” is me cheating and declaring two movies the year’s best. I had trouble with rankings this year, and they became so arbitrary that I scrapped the numbering system. (I always end up changing my mind later anyway.) You can think of these as tiers, if you wish. As usual, eligibility depended on a 2016 U.S. commercial release (I saw some great undistributed movies, but I’ll save those for next time).
Best of the Rest
The Age of Shadows, April and the Extraordinary World, Arrival, A Bigger Splash, Do Not Resist, Doctor Strange, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, Happy Hour, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Indignation, Little Men, Louder than Bombs, Loving, Moana, Moonlight, Mountains May Depart, The Neon Demon, Pete’s Dragon, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Right Now Wrong Then, Rogue One, The Salesman, Spa Night, SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, Sully, Things to Come, The Wailing, Zootopia
I don’t understand the lukewarm reaction! Robert Zemeckis’ best film in nearly 20 years serves up one great set piece after another. Like last year’s Bridge of Spies, this is polished, classical Hollywood filmmaking.
A strong case for cinematographer as auteur. Kirsten Johnson’s doc is a collection of strikingly edited snapshots that capture tragedy, love, and empathy. Personal filmmaking at its best.
One could argue Jeremy Saulnier’s taut, relentless crime thriller is actually a horror movie. No other 2016 pic can match its intensity, terror, or unflinching violence. A confident display of genre filmmaking.
HELL OR HIGH WATER
A kind of socioeconomically-focused take on No Country for Old Men that sets two pairs of brothers (one bound by blood, the other by the shield) on a collision course. Expectedly exciting; unexpectedly poignant. Pine’s best acting.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
Whit Stillman and Jane Austen make perfect companions. A quirky costume dramedy of endless wit and humor. Beckinsale and Bennett (Supp Actor of the year, as I see it) are impeccable.
MY GOLDEN DAYS
The first Desplechin film for which I’ve completely fallen. Technically a prequel, but no prior viewing required. A smart, bittersweet reflection on adolescence, first love, and political engagement.
This droll delight is my favorite from Corneliu Porumboiu. Like all his work, it’s mostly built around oppositional verbal exchanges, but it has a grand finale that brings everything into perspective.
CEMETERY OF SPLENDOR
The latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul is another metaphysical gem. Narratively speaking, this is a more straightforward film than Syndromes and a Century or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, though the elusive, ethereal vibe coursing through those two is present once again. The Thai master remains a striking image-maker, as Cemetery contains some of his most indelible moments: a dissolve from a busy, multi-plane shot of cascading escalators to neon-lit hospital quarters; a serene shot of a cloudy blue sky interrupted by a slinking protozoan; a group of people rapidly switching seats along a series of benches. A difficult but rewarding rumination on health in the modern world and the past’s grip on the present.
It felt like an important year in recognizing women filmmakers. Maren Ade (whose name you’ll see again on my list), Kirsten Johnson (mentioned above), Andrea Arnold, Kelly Fremon Craig, Ava DuVernay, Anna Rose Holmer, Mia Hansen-Løve, Anna Biller, Anne Fontaine, Karyn Kusama, Sophia Takal, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and Beyoncé(!), among others, all made films, most of them about female protagonists, that garnered acclaim and showed up on top 10 lists. It’s a shame it took this long for better (but still unsatisfactory) recognition and representation, and I bet Kelly Reichardt would agree. Reichardt has been making movies for over 20 years, but Certain Women might be her best yet. This is a film that I saw at TIFF and has only grown on me since: a quiet, fine-tuned study of four women across three loosely connected stories fighting for autonomy, respect, and happiness, against antiquated cultural norms and the microaggressions of men. It’s between Certain Women and Moonlight for acting ensemble of the year.
LA LA LAND
Every once in a while there’s a film I embrace with giddy abandon, a goofy smile on my face throughout. This year that was La La Land. A celebration of old musicals (from Astaire to Kelly to Demy and everyone in between)—and Hollywood more generally—as well as a thoroughly modern love story of foolish, hungry dreamers. It’s easy to see why the film is the Oscar frontrunner and why it has already given rise to a backlash, but I find it charming as hell. Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash is a small story told on a grand scale, and he demonstrates the technical proficiency to match his ambition. His direction is often loud and elaborate but subdued when it matters, as during an all-too-real dinner table argument. The An American in Paris meets The Umbrellas of Cherbourg finale is a thing of cinematic beauty. And “Someone in the Crowd” has been stuck in my head for months. Months!
There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Yorgos Lanthimos: you either love him or hate him. I just eat up his tales of insular communities and social pariahs. The Lobster is simultaneously his most accessible film to date and the year’s weirdest romance. The dark comic streak that runs through his earlier work comes to the fore as lead actor Colin Farrell (in maybe his best performance) challenges social codes in an absurdist version of modern society. The deadpan delivery, the off-kilter compositions, the chilly color palette—all in the service of constructing a bizarro world. I love it. Oh, and my animal would be an owl.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Despite all the acclaim heaped upon Manchester by the Sea, I think people may still be underselling Kenneth Lonergan’s accomplishment. This is a sad movie about enduring grief. Really, really sad. I can’t stress that enough. Bring tissues. And yet it’s never punishing, and it manages to induce hearty laughter. This is because Lonergan, a playwright first, depicts the tragedy with astounding authenticity. Its verisimilitude comes out through the gestures of the performers (a character dragging a stick along an iron fence) and the peripheral details of dialogue-driven scenes (two characters unable to recall where their car is parked). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Casey Affleck gives the male lead performance of the year.
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
If you listen to the Reel Fanatics podcast regularly, you know that I’m harsh on documentary filmmaking, especially in its liberal application of the standard talking heads & B-roll combo. O.J. uses both tools extensively over its mammoth 7.5-hour runtime. Structurally, it’s a traditional doc. But director Ezra Edelman demonstrates why this style has become the standard: it can be incredibly effective when used to construct a convincing argument or riveting narrative arc. Edelman covers the Simpson murder case and the media frenzy around it in sharp detail, but what elevates this feature (yes, feature—it had a theatrical release first) is its all-encompassing portrait of Simpson as a disgraced American icon in the vein of Charles Foster Kane or Daniel Plainview. Except, ya know, a real person.
Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating passion project is the list inclusion I’ve had the least amount of time to digest (just over one week, as of this writing). As with most Scorsese movies, Silence’s cinematic achievements are immediately apparent, but its sobering reflections on faith, evangelism, brotherhood, and human fallibility are still sinking in—precisely the effect any wise film about religion should have on viewers. In this way, Silence stands in stark contrast to the other 2016 religion-centered film starring Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge (skip it). Like Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 film adaptation, Scorsese’s version is largely faithful to Shūsaku Endō’s novel until the very end, at which point the filmmaker asserts his own psychological interpretation. Silence is a quiet, meditative film, occasionally punctuated with cruel violence, and it’s buoyed by a terrific, soul-searching Garfield. No doubt this film has staying power.
The toast of Cannes, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann was expected to take home the Palme d’Or. That it lost to the vastly inferior I, Daniel Blake (seriously, it’s not even close) and went home empty-handed is an utter travesty. Fortunately, it’s getting love now and for good reason. I saw it in a packed theater at TIFF, and the audience was in stitches. At nearly 2hr45min, it’s long, but it never feels long. Almost unclassifiable—I suppose I’d call it a father-daughter screwball buddy dramedy—and undeniably strange, Toni Erdmann works because of the nuance and care Ade puts into the double character study. What makes it soar, however, is its comic set pieces. There are two in the second half that are hysterical, and I won’t spoil them here. The leads, Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek, are brilliant together.
20th CENTURY WOMEN
20th Century Women, another semi-autobiographical picture from Beginners writer-director Mike Mills, exhibits a sincerity and specificity in its first-person essay structure: characters and stories are born out of particular environments and conditions. 20CW is about personal histories, the brief periods of time in which people’s lives intersect, and how shared experiences shape us as people. Employing multi-character omniscient narration, this is a more ambitious project than Beginners and even less bound by character arcs or act breaks. Mills fashions it as a cross-section of time and place with a discursive narrative that on occasion has an almost stream-of-consciousness feel even though it has been meticulously curated. Lovingly crafted personal filmmaking.
Film(s) of the Year
It was a great year for cinema but one in which there wasn’t a clear best for me. Two films stood out from the pack. The first is Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. This is Park operating at his directorial peak (sorry, Oldboy fans). It blends the filmmaker’s pulpy predilections (namely, lurid cinematic violence and twisted tales of perversion) with a genuinely affecting sapphic love story nestled inside a period piece. I haven’t read the source novel, Fingersmith by Sara Waters, but I am amazed at how Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung are able to transpose the story to a setting on the other side of the world and a time period nearly one hundred years later without any sense of anachronism. That feat alone is worth the price of admission. In terms of storytelling, The Handmaiden is a marvel. The deliciously serpentine plot unfolds with clarity and speed without sacrificing characterization or emotion even as it doubles back on itself. The central romance is the film’s spine, and because it’s so well drawn, the movie’s con artist angle—and this is a con artist film to a significant degree—is more than just a technique for audience manipulation. There is ongoing suspense-surprise, push-pull tension, which, in turn, accords the romance more consequence. And in Park’s capable hands, The Handmaiden becomes a florid, dazzling entertainment about women’s empowerment over patriarchy.
Paterson is perhaps the most unlikely film to share the top spot with The Handmaiden. Other than that they are examples of auteurs flexing their stylistic muscles, these two films could not be more different. Hail, Caesar! and Julieta aside, 2016 was a pretty satisfying year for directors I love delivering the goods, and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a superior case. Admirably, Jarmusch has continued to showcase the idiosyncratic sensibilities that characterized his work at the start of his career over 30 years ago. An American independent filmmaker in the best way possible. Paterson covers a week in the life of a poetry-writing bus driver (or is that a bus-driving poet?) named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. Jarmusch eschews plot and character arcs almost entirely in favor of a zen-like stroll through Paterson’s daily routine. In doing so, the film generates a beautiful rhythm, and it is in deviations from, or obstacles to, his routine where moments of significance are formed. What may sound like a snooze on the page is in fact a film bursting with life in all its deceptive simplicity. Paterson’s quaint, amusing encounters elicit hopes, fears, and struggles. For Paterson and his wife Laura, there are creative drives at play, with contrasting levels of output. Yet the film’s most peculiar achievement is only evidenced by reading reactions from other viewers: Paterson is a cinematic Rorschach test for revealing one’s perspective on finding purpose in life. So exquisitely Jarmuschian. So inescapably human.