I used to start these with a write-up about how the year for movies was compared to other years. I recently read a quote on Indiewire that completely turned that mentality on its head: “If you think it’s been a bad year for movies, you haven’t looked hard enough.”
This year, at the time of writing, I have seen exactly 100 movies from 2016. This is a number I know will increase, as part of this discovery is realizing you can’t keep up with everything and still try to have other endeavors. With that in mind, I want to pay tribute to two movies from 2015 that I didn’t see in time for my top 10 but would’ve been major contenders: “Best of Enemies” and “Mustang.” Conveniently, they’re both on Netflix, and regardless of what year they came out, they’re some of the best of what cinema has to offer.
What we 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:
While initially viewed as an alien invasion movie, “Arrival” ends up being a much more introspective study of big concepts that we grapple with in our everyday lives, notably our human understanding of language and time. Discussing concepts like this are always invigorating, so seeing a movie that addresses them both with distinction is a treat. The entire outing works largely due to director Denis Villeneuve, who has a distinct ability to play to both the populist crowd and the cinephile crowd in his work. Here he uses every design element, notably the way the aliens interact with the humans, to convey the movie’s nonlinear theme. For most of the runtime, I was simply on board with the journey, centered squarely on Amy Adams as she fills in each piece of the surrounding puzzle. In the end, I took away a message about living life completely even if you have the knowledge that inevitably it won’t always work out as you hoped. Other viewers may have had a different moral walking away. Regardless, it’s hard for me to imagine not leaving the theater in awe after viewing this. Intelligent, conversation-starting blockbusters are something I can always get behind, and “Arrival” quietly stands as one prime example.
9. Nocturnal Animals
Back-to-back Amy Adams movies show not only how impressive an actress she is but also how well she can morph into varied types of roles. “Nocturnal Animals” is an airtight thriller that feels like a modern Hitchcock in how creepily it gets under your skin and gives you the character’s sense of doom. The structure of a film featuring one character reading a book and the book coming to life has been used before but never has it felt so seamless as both the movie and the story within the movie run congruent to one another. Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford unsurprisingly has an unmatched sense of color, making every sequence gorgeous and deliberate in capturing what matters to the story, also giving the two parts of the film their own distinct palette. When it comes to genre, I love any kind of white-knuckle ride, but in this case, I loved how deeply we got into the inner emotions of the repressed protagonist. It’s also a movie that doesn’t waste a moment of symbolism: the evocative opening title sequence may seem like simple shock value, but ends up being a major metaphor for the lead character’s lack of freedom and inability to truly be comfortable in the cold and emotionless life that she chose. These moments that capture the mood and the themes (often with color as noted above) are what elevates it beyond a simple revenge movie, but instead a movie rich with opinions about life, love, and passion.
8. Manchester By the Sea
What’s rewarding about making a top 10 list is that it’s possible to highlight the whole range of top-notch filmmaking styles that all work based on the vision of what they’re aiming to accomplish. Viewing “Manchester” next to the other Oscar contenders, it is equally a director’s vision, yet with such different intent than its peers. Kenneth Lonergan successfully avoids the conventional structure and the ostentatious flair that many cinephiles (myself included) adore. He aims for a more closely guarded dive into the lives of everyday people and how they respond to tragic life events. Casey Affleck is perfectly cast in his ability to deliver a character that feels unprepared for all that life has thrown at him, and more importantly as the film evolves, unable to shake the past. Every scene we’re shown is compelling because it rings a deep sense of realism for how these established characters would actually act in that situation. It’s the entire spectrum of heartbreaking and comedic because that’s how life unfolds for us, as neither a comedy or a tragedy but a strange mixture of the two. Anytime a film does this, it inevitably makes its way to the top shelf. The ordering of scenes is deliberate and we get information in a crucial order to achieve empathy. But one of the other successes is what we don’t see onscreen. By leaving many characters’ stories with unsaid details, we get the feeling similar to how our protagonist does (and that is true of all life), that it’s impossible to fully know the battles and demons that those around us face, but it’s a safe assumption that every single person is going through their own set of emotional challenges. I’m impressed that such an unassuming film has received such loud clamor, and look forward to revisiting it as a study of top-tier subdued directing in the years to come.
7. Swiss Army Man
At Sundance, “Swiss Army Man” made big headlines for being a movie about a farting dead body. While that is an accurate description, it also happens to be two other triumphs which make it worthy of remembrance. First, it follows through on its promise of being completely bonkers, the one-of-a-kind humor evolves to make each scene feel even funnier than the last. It’s natural evolution from zany to zanier, and unabashed commitment to ludicrosity, make it approachable for viewers because it invites them to join in on the madness by having it grow incrementally. With each step in the story development, we go a little further outside our comfort box until we realize we’re completely outside of it. This is largely aided by the impeccable production design, using a handmade approach and lots of trash/litter to capture one of the primary themes of being thrown away, but also to serve as a way to reinvent one’s self.
On top of all the humor and farting, it’s actually a deeply moving story about insecurity and social acceptance. Despite being a movie with only 2 actors, it touches on the pressures many of us feel from parents or people of the opposite sex, to behave in a certain way or fall into a certain type of boxed identity. This unexpected depiction of insecurity in an unorthodox comedy is the ultimate bait-and-switch and gives it layers much deeper. The directors, who go by ‘Daniels,’ eloquently summarized the film in one sentence: “It starts with a fart joke that makes you laugh, and ends with a fart joke that makes you cry.” If that isn’t the greatest logline for a movie, I don’t know what is.
6. American Honey
A three-hour epic, yet perhaps the most intimate movie on this list, “American Honey” is undeniably a ferocious work of art from start to finish. For a taste of what to expect, I’ll crown the film’s trailer as the best of the year in not only being well made but also capturing the tone and leaving you wanting to see the rest. It is an exploration into the debauchery and counter-cultural journey of Star (Sasha Lane), as she joins a band of misfits you’d assume are thieves but even more interestingly turn out to be traveling salespeople, peddling door-to-door magazines, and therefore represent the absolute bottom of the capitalist hierarchy, living hand-to-mouth, moment-to-moment. I’ve seen many movies about people stealing their way through life, so it’s even more thought-provoking to see people doing technically honest work but at such a low level; this is only one of the many conversations that “American Honey” invites viewers to engage in. Best viewed as an art piece ahead of a narrative story, there are many nuances through the runtime that are each worthy of exploration and revisiting. For me in particular, I was engrossed in director Andrea Arnold’s ability to not paint the entire American Midwest with one broad brush, but instead to capture the detailed differences between each of its subregions, including Missouri and the Dakotas, and the various types of people that inhabit each. So often the vast majority of our country is referred to as a singular entity when in reality it has so many differences. Here she is able to eloquently elaborate on this which is especially impressive considering she is a British director. The lengthy runtime is never wasted and allows for these moments and this variety of location to breathe richly. Few films have such a strong grasp of authenticity and artistry in the same train of thought, and also are able to capture a subculture without demonizing them. It’s a journey to go on, one that may not appeal to everyone, but for those willing to give it a shot, you’ll be left with plenty to discuss after seeing this vision.
5. A Monster Calls
A recent discovery I’ve made is that one of the powerful capabilities a film has is that it can help us verbalize or explain an emotion that we’ve never been able to understand, let alone outwardly express. “A Monster Calls” is such a movie: a young boy whose mother is terminally ill is haunted by a mostly-imaginary 50-foot tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) whose stories have a profound message. It’s impossible to express what the emotion and human understanding I gained from watching this was without giving it away. All I can say is that this is a movie that manages to express a sentiment we’ve all had but never knew how to share. On top of that, it’s undeniably the most emotionally wrecking movie of the year, and not because of the obvious reasons you’d expect a movie to be sad, but because of how truthfully it captures the ranges of emotions we all have felt in times of grief. In fact, screenwriter Patrick Ness went out of his way to avoid so many of the emotional tropes that make some people cry (but usually make me cringe for feeling like cliché). I found myself crying not because of the sadness, but because of how real the emotions it had captured were in ways that I had never truly unearthed, and that is as powerful a feeling as you could ever ask for from a piece of cinema. I love this movie from a cinematic point of view but am equally thankful for how much emotional intelligence it provides to all those who view it.
I’ve been able to see more documentaries this year than ever before, and it has given me a newly indispensable notion of what criteria makes a documentary into essential cinema. “Nuts!” is the most eccentric movie on this list: it’s a mostly animated, mostly nonfiction story of a quack doctor from the 1920’s who convinced legions of people in middle America he could cure male impotence using goat testicles. This bonkers story as told by director Penny Lane (yes, that’s her real name) is something wholly entertaining from start to finish and simultaneously an allegory for our modern world of powerful people manipulating the masses. What makes it work so well is that its style captures the nature of the protagonist: because he was so charismatic, the documentary allows the viewer to feel what it’s like to buy into this sensation, only to turn the entire thing on its head. This is a great example of using all the untapped potential of cinematic storytelling to capture the essence of a story. On top of all that, it’s one of the most entertaining pieces I’ve seen in ages, so much so that I saw it twice at the same film festival, and then once again! There is something so compelling about how nuts (pun very intended) this story is, and for that reason, I encourage everyone to check it out for themselves (it’s available to rent on iTunes!).
This level of dramatic filmmaking is what has kept me invigorated in the medium for nearly all my lifelong love of movies. Barry Jenkins has crafted a story that is carefully detailed in depicting a character unlike any we’ve seen onscreen before, and yet simultaneously has told a universally relatable story with themes that we all can relate to: insecurity in adolescence, strained relationships with parents or paternal figures, trying to express love to someone you care about, and many more. I’ll repeat a quote from director Ang Lee which I love, that great films create “universality in the culturally specific.” More than any other film released this year, I felt like I was the protagonist, because despite having objectively little in common with him, “Moonlight” so perfectly captures the grand emotions I experienced in my own adolescence. I imagine the same will be true for others, and this makes it such an effective film.
All this is regarding the film’s content, how about the film’s singular style? First, the triptych structure is brilliantly executed, in large part due to how each iteration of the protagonist is so different yet is unmistakably the same Chiron we’ve known already. It allows every minute we see to feel essential to the character, skipping over plot points that may seem important but would distract from the core of the character study. DP James Laxton’s use of evocative color and intense camera motion, when needed, adds texture to every scene that I’ll need another viewing to fully investigate. This is a case where every piece of craftsmanship feels like it is serving the story, and this is why it is so effective in being universally relatable. As a cinephile, I am in awe of its effect, and as a filmmaker, I aspire to make a drama that has the same level of complexity and empathy as this film.
2. La La Land
I’m certainly not the first person to have rave reviews for this film, which currently looks like the Oscar frontrunner. In fact, I’ve been even aware it’s gotten some backlash due to its success, with people dismissing it as a ‘happy movie’ or a ‘silly musical.’ Neither is true by any means. “La La Land” is a seamless hybrid of a classical filmmaking style with something timely and culturally relevant. It’s a film about relationships, art, and the sacrifice and compromise both pursuits require. The care that has gone into making an immediately engaging movie that has deeper layering with more scrutiny is on display in every frame.
All of these themes are deftly incorporated because the two protagonists, played marvelously by Stone and Gosling, represent opposing worldviews yet both are pursuing creative careers. I was moved by how well the film captured their chemistry, difference in opinion, and eventual influence on each other’s dreams. This is a movie with a lot of questions to ask and themes to explore, and often times we understand the exact sentiments from a simple look. This mixture of showy dance numbers and technical marvels contrasting the quieter moments (another theme in action) enhances this movie as one rich in subtext. Damien Chazelle has a commanding grip on what he’s aiming to say, and just when the movie feels like it’s going to wrap up, it takes a major detour, in the style of “Singin’ in the Rain,” to ask the audience even more questions about art and love. I applaud this movie and defend it as worthy of all its acclaim. But I will also add it’s incredibly refreshing to have such an eclectic slate of movies jockeying for Oscars (many on this list), each of which is worthy of receiving awards this year, but more importantly, further revisiting in the years to come.
Can you imagine a film exists that has the emotional range of 20 films combined, the singular fingerprint of one artistic vision, speaks volumes about our current generation, all while pushing the boundaries of what the cinema medium is capable of offering? I speak in grand levels about “Cameraperson” because it is worthy of being recognized as a top-shelf masterpiece. Director Kirsten Johnson has been a cinematographer for 25 years in documentary film and has worked all over the globe on everything from “Citizenfour” to the most obscure indie docs. In “Cameraperson,” she compiles footage from her entire career and organizes it as a memoir of her own life experience, both personal and professional. This is an experimental film by nature, but its ability to capture the emotional realities of people throughout her entire journey make it universally relatable. We jump everywhere from Bosnia to Sudan, Brooklyn to Yemen. These images are pulled from the context of other stories, often of mass conflict and sometimes tragedy, but here, Johnson uses them to tell a biographical story of her own journey while miraculously also covering the human condition as a whole. When two outwardly different clips are juxtaposed together, a larger narrative unfolds that is exponentially more effective. Because of the sheer vastness of sources she’s pulling from, as a viewer you can feel that everything we see on screen has been deliberately put in this order to achieve a certain effect. Nothing feels out of place, and the entire runtime feels masterfully compiled. I’ll reiterate I’ve never seen a film like it, and yet for all its boundary-pushing, it’s nonetheless engaging and emotionally enriching from start to finish.
In a year with many excellent entries into the art of cinema, “Cameraperson” remains a shoulder above the next as a groundbreaking, emotionally awe-inspiring work of art that also manages to be universally relatable to anyone willing to give it a chance. Without any hesitation, I stand by this film as the best movie of 2016.
Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order)
Captain Fantastic – I have so much love for this movie for two reasons: first, its incorporation of so many pieces of essential reading has encouraged me to seek them all out and aspire to be a ‘philosopher king’ like the characters in this film. Second, I love how it captures the trials of parent-child relationships that are inevitably imperfect despite high hopes for the best. Nearly in my top 10, this remains one not to be missed.
The Founder – In an alternate universe, this would have been Michael Keaton’s vehicle to win the Oscar. I’m not sure why it was unceremoniously dropped as an awards contender, but John Lee Hancock’s telling of the creation of McDonald’s comes as a lighter, “Social Network”-esque billionaire origin story with less artistry but plenty of intrigue and a great starting point for discussing what drives our country as a whole.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople – For a laugh-out-loud experience from start to finish look no further. Taika Waititi has served up a delightful romp that feels fresher than any straight comedy has in ages, while also being unexpectedly heartfelt. I hope this New Zealand movie continues to build fans for years to come, and I am extra curious to see how Waititi directs “Thor 3″ next year.
Pete’s Dragon – There is no movie more pure of heart than this quiet, underseen Disney release. Without stooping to lows that most juvenile family movies have resorted to and relying on far less CGI than many of its counterparts, it captures a sense of magic and wonder that can leave a profound and joyous feeling on people of all ages who watch it. You can read my full review to see more details, but the bottom line is it’s a soaring journey with something for everyone to love.
13th – If there were a list to be made for the most educational and informative movies of 2016, it’s fair to say Ava Duvernay’s documentary would be straight at the top. An untold history of the U.S. that intersects every major issue we face: corporate power, politics, justice, and of course race in America. See it to believe it, it’s only a click of a button away on Netflix.
An Extra Honorable Mention
The Babushkas of Chernobyl – One of the absolute best I’ve seen comes from the 2015 LA Film Festival but did not receive any formal distribution after that, despite being able to be purchased online intermittently. Regardless of if it counts as a release, I find it worth my time to share this documentary. Focusing on a group of 80-year-old women who never moved out of the condemned Chernobyl nuclear site in Ukraine, filmmakers Holly Morris and Anne Bogart have captured a rare look into the souls of wise people undeterred by modern chaos. It’s a beautiful film I’ve remembered long since viewing, worth seeking out!
Thank you for reading, and here’s to many more great movies ahead!