What we here at Cinemacy consider to be the best of this year represents a combination of the movies that had the greatest emotional impact on us, matched with movies that felt innovative or groundbreaking. Here are the films I consider to be this year’s best:
10. Sing Street | d. John Carney
Every so often there comes a movie that Hollywood deems the “savior” of the musical. “Moulin Rouge!” is 2001, “Chicago” in 2002, etc. While “La La Land” will reap that title in 2016 (it’s really great, of course), one mustn’t forget a little move called “Sing Street,” a joyous rush of 80s pop and new wave energy from director John Carney. Carney has made a name for himself over the last decade with his deep admiration for music in his films. While his debut, the cult favorite “Once” looked to find love between two small-town Irish songwriters, his next feature, the underappreciated “Begin Again,” found joy in modern American pop music. “Sing Street” lands somewhere in the middle – a love letter to 80s new wave in small-town Ireland. More so than a letter to music, “Sing Street” is a letter to creativity and a thank you card to the dreams of adolescence. Bolstered by an excellent original soundtrack that touches on everything from post-punk to new wave to the new romantics, “Sing Street” is a much-needed burst of energy. In a year that seemed to drag us all down, it urged us to grab a guitar, write a song, and get all that energy out.
9. Neruda | d. Pablo Larraín
This Chilean director had a monster of a year, releasing three films over the course of twelve months, the most high-profile being his unique biography of Jackie Kennedy, “Jackie.” His other biopic, “Neruda,” follows the famed Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda as he went into exile for his Communist beliefs. Like “Jackie,” “Neruda” is a very unconventional biopic. Playing like a mid-century detective drama, it follows Neruda (Luis Gnecco) into hiding as a government inspector (Gael García Bernal), who may or may not be real, closely follows his tracks. It is a very narrow window into its titular character’s timeline but a vast unraveling of something much grander. “Neruda” is a movie about the mind of the artist and the illusion they create to bring meaning to life. It’s a biopic that leaves narrative truth behind as it finds something much greater as the story goes on. As Larraín blurs reality and myth, he creates a film that asks meaningful questions about politics, culture, and personal legacy. “Neruda” is far more than a movie about Pablo Neruda, it is a movie about the personal quest for truth and the myths we create to find it.
8. Morris From America | d. Chad Hartigan
“Morris From America” is a true underdog story. In a year that gave us the operatic triumph of “Moonlight” and the unearthly beauty of “The Fits,” “Morris” is the sparkle on a trophy year for films about black youth. “Morris From America” may be the most conventional of the bunch, but it was the central title figure who spoke the loudest – literally and metaphorically. Morris (Markess Christmas) is a young African-American boy living in Germany with his soccer coach father (an award-worthy Craig Robinson). Struggling to fit in a foreign country, the quick-witted and dirty-mouthed Morris finds himself falling in love with an older classmate, blowing freestyles at his talent show, getting in fights, and all of the normal things that come with growing up. What makes “Morris” such a delight is the chemistry between Christmas and Robinson. As a comedic duo, they are only matched by themselves as a dramatic duo. And it is in these dramatic moments that “Morris From America” reveals itself to be much more than a quirky comedy. It’s a poignant look at being young, being black and being different, and a gentle reminder that while misunderstanding is inevitable, it can only be combatted with compassion.
7. American Honey | d. Andrea Arnold
2016 revealed America to be a very politically and culturally complicated place. So vast in its geography, it is a hard place to define. This was made very apparent in many of this year’s best films that relished in their location. “La La Land” and “20th Century Women’s” dreamy visions of southern California. “Hell or High Water” and “Nocturnal Animals’” nihilistic views of West Texas. “Manchester By the Sea’s” portrait of New England quaintness. “Moonlight’s” lyrical composition of South Florida. All locations so very distinct, but all from this same nation. Perhaps the most fascinating dissection of American culture came from English director Andrea Arnold, whose teenage epic “American Honey” was – as it’s trailer quotes put it so perfectly – a “youthquake” of an experience. Arnold introduces us to a band of alienated teenagers from around the nation, selling magazines door to door, as they road trip through the midwest. On the outside, these kids look rough and disposable, but they are thirsty for purpose and adventure. Led by outstanding performances from dazzling first-timer Sasha Lane and the always underrated Shia LaBeouf, Arnold’s film is an electric and empathic glance toward a part of America, all too often ignored. It is a vivid and intimate study in middle America, and the many nuances that make each state, city, and county so distinct. In a year that seemed to divide us, “American Honey” gave us a window toward a much-needed understanding.
6. Manchester By the Sea | d. Kenneth Lonergan
“Manchester By the Sea” is a peculiar film, one full of contradictions. It’s a quiet film, but it talks a lot. It’s a small movie, but it’s the near the length of an epic. It’s filled with melancholy and sorrow but also with some of the funniest moments of the year. If there’s one constant about Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature, it poignancy. Every moment in “Manchester” rings so true, that it is impossible to deny. The story of a janitor (a career-best Casey Affleck) who has to look after his nephew (a star-making turn from Lucas Hedges) after his father dies, it moves with life’s pace – moment to moment. It never fully embraces one tone, carefully moving down the middle of comedic gold and heartbreaking tragedy. This is perhaps the most difficult of maneuvers in storytelling, but Lonergan proves that with keen attention to the little moments over the bigger picture, it can work wonders. It’s a slight movie, but oh so powerful.
5. Everybody Wants Some!! | d. Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater called “Everybody Wants Some!!” a spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused” but it could just as much be a spiritual sequel to his previous film “Boyhood.” “Everybody Wants Some!!” begins in the same place that “Boyhood” ends: the first day of school. Taking place on the first day of college in 1980 at a small East Texas state school, Linklater finds himself again turning his lens and sharp tongue toward the youth of yesteryear – this time a college baseball team full of rowdy, horny, beer-chugging, disco-dancing boys. While this may seem like exactly the opposite movie we needed in 2016, Linklater doesn’t make his character succumb to masculine cliché. This is a movie about friendship, camaraderie, and good conversation. One of the funniest movies of the year, it is a joyous, nostalgic, and empathetic celebration of 20th century Americana. Just like a Linklater movie should be.
4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople | d. Taika Waititi
Rarely does a filmmaker enter a top ten list, back to back. After making last year’s list with the uproarious vampire roast “What We Do in the Shadows,” New Zealander Taika Waititi enters elite company with “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” The film plays like an irreverent “Moonrise Kingdom,” following a young kiwi boy (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster father (Sam Neill) as they get lost in the (gorgeous) bush of New Zealand. Newcomer Dennison and veteran Neill play the most unlikely duo of the year. Working together with such glee and odd-couple chemistry, Dennison showcases impressive comic delivery for a youngster, while Neill bounces his ruggedness off his foil with impressive intuition. But, the real star is Waititi, whose script is wall-to-wall with laughs, and perhaps more important, a lot of heart. But with “Wilderpeople,” he cements another essential skill. In Edgar Wright’s all-too-long absence, Waititi has proven himself to be the leading auteur of visual comedy, a skill that is becoming all too rare outside of animation. And if the adventure of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” is any hint, his next project, the highly-anticipated “Thor: Ragnarok,” could add a much-needed zip of life into Hollywood’s biggest universe.
3. The Edge of Seventeen | d. Kelly Fremon Craig
This decade has seen a quiet renaissance of the teen drama – “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Spectacular Now” and, especially, “Boyhood” being some of the shining examples of growing up in middle America. “The Edge of Seventeen” dropped into theaters with the weight of a feather in the thick of awards season. Yet, somehow, in a banner year for the genre, “The Edge of Seventeen” ran ahead of the pack. It’s a plot straight out of teen comedy lore: a hip, but awkward high school junior’s (a marvelous Hailee Steinfeld) social life is uprooted when her best friend begins to date her older, more popular brother. Despite this initially eye-rolling premise, “Seventeen” may be the most eye-watering film of the year. Steinfeld is a revelation in the central role moving a mile a minute in an anxious, hilarious and, at times, heartbreaking role. Her teenage girl is not the one we have become accustomed to – she is honest and complex, a tomboy and an “old soul” figuring out what it means to be a woman and an adult. The is something to be learned from each of her relationships: her best friend, her mother, her teacher, and especially her brother. No character is thrown away, and each brings something to the story. All credit to freshman writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, whose knack for dexterous narrative and whip-smart humor lifts “The Edge of Seventeen” into the annals of unsung and underseen dramas, giving us the underdog movie of the year.
2. The Lobster | d. Yorgos Lanthimos
As a twentysomething confronted with the increasingly close reality of courtship and the increasingly large variety in digital technology to assist in the process, love and the process of finding it can feel like an inescapable chore. “The Lobster,” the third feature from Greek surrealist Yorgos Lanthimos, takes the human quest for love and turns it into one of the most delightfully absurd films of the year. Following a middle-aged man (a never-better Colin Farrell) who checks himself into a hotel that gives one 45 days to find a mate or else they will be turned into an animal of their choosing. Dry in its humor, but rich in its heady concepts, “The Lobster” is not only witty but gorgeously composed. It fuses its dystopian setting with absurdist tendencies to provide a unique and essential experience about more than just love, but the quest for simple human connection, all while recognizing our most animal of instincts.
1. 20th Century Women | d. Mike Mills
One of Mike Mills’ many talents as a storyteller is his gift for time and context. In our era of borrowed nostalgia, too often we stop short to define a specific time period by only it’s looks and sounds. But, Mills does something extraordinary with 20th Century Women. He defines 1979 in the city of Santa Barbara, CA by its people – specifically, teenage outsider Jamie (Lucas James Zumann) and the trio of women that teach him about the world: his single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), the art-punk photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who rents a room in their house and his platonic best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) who spends the night with him, but sleeps with other boys.
Mills treats his characters with a rare tenderness that allows them to breathe and move free from strict narrative constraints. The humanity that fills Mills’ titular trio of women and their femininity is, at once, refreshingly authentic, honest and playful. And through their tribulations, 20th Century Women does something almost otherworldly; it allows you to feel this particular moment in time, in this particular place. Warm, but anxious. Lost, but optimistic. It doesn’t feel too far off from our own moment in time. As matriarch Dorthea points out – punk was ending, Reagan was coming, among other things. 2016 was a similar cultural and political watershed. So, in a funny way, Mike Mills made, perhaps, the most comforting film of the last year; a story brimming with hope and tenderness, that reminds us to listen to the past but embrace the future. And, in that way, 20th Century Women proves to be, quite simply, timeless.