I have just wrapped up my first year as a film critic, affording me more opportunities than ever to sit in cinemas.
After watching 120 of 2016's films, here is my fourth consecutive "Top 15 Films of the Year" list!
Compared to the last few years, the often punishing 2016 wasn't a stellar year for film- at least in the realm of mainstream Hollywood. During a year of awful sequels and lucrative rubbish, the independent film scene shone even brighter.
Before we get to the best of the best, here's the best of the rest!
10 Cloverfield Lane- a lean, mean supernatural thriller with a terrifying turn from John Goodman.
Christine- a quiet exploration of depression, told through the true story of a news reporter who shot herself on live TV.
Hell or High Water- flips the Western genre on its head with populist fervor and guns blazing.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople- a New Zealand romp that proudly wears its 'quirky comedy' badge.
Where to Invade Next- Michael Moore completes his transition from America's loudest critic to one of its most passionate benefactors.
And now, the Top 15 Films of 2016. Some have only had limited releases in L.A. to qualify in awards shows for 2016 films, so I have included notices that clarify when the rest of the country gets them.
-written by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore
What is it? An animated Disney film full of talking animals that takes a keen look at the intricacies of systemic racism. Also, a bunny cop enlists the help of a crook fox to solve the mystery of a missing otter.
Why it made the list: It's practically a given these days that a Disney film will boast bouncy characters, gorgeous animation, and on point voice work- which this new classic certainly does- but Zootopia also manages to dismantle and explain societal racism in a way that can both educate kids and inform the understandings of adults. Animated kids' films are rarely so simultaneously necessary and fun.
Why it's not higher: There are a number of plot contrivances- chiefly a few egregious uses of 'deus ex machina'- that keep the story moving along. Children will easily forgive such transgressions, but more logical humans will grow tired of watching the characters escape certain doom through pure chance over and over again. And Zootopia's original Shakira song is painfully cheesy.
14. BLUE JAY
-written by Mark Duplass, directed by Alex Lehmann
What is it? Two former lovers reunite for the first time in years in their small California hometown. They take a night to catch up, wax nostalgic, and reevaluate their lives and themselves.
Why it made the list: The screenwriter and co-main actor of Blue Jay, Mark Duplass, is a champion of the mumblecore genre: movies with humble stories that focus on naturalistic dialogue and emotion. Blue Jay excels at all of the above: the exchanges between Jim and Amanda bleed reality and sentiment in equal measure, and the tale underlying their reconnection will touch the heart of anyone who has once loved and lost. Duplass and Sarah Paulson's performances alone prompted copious laughs and tears on my part.
Why it's not higher: Though most of the movie reflects human conversation with fine accuracy, there are one or two sequences that ring slightly dramatized for either humor or theatric purposes. They're still written well, but they don't feel at home within the overall tone.
-written and directed by Ava DuVernay
What is it? A documentary that explores how slavery and racial discrimination are perpetuated by the mass incarceration of African Americans.
Why it made the list: I swear it's a complete coincidence that 13th landed at my 13th favorite of the year. In our current political climate, Ava DuVernay's incendiary Netflix (that means go stream it now) documentary is easily the most important film of 2016. It delves into America's embarrassing incarceration rates and- with an always discerning and thoughtful eye- demonstrates how they inexorably connect to the country's historical oppression of African Americans. Intelligent minds gather to fill out the statistics and details.
Why it's not higher: In terms of cultural significance, 13th is #1. From a filmmaking standpoint, the documentary is so packed with information that its presentation of the facts is sometimes too rushed to fully ruminate over. Occasional rewinding may be required.
*released wide to theaters on January 20th
-written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
What is it? A week in the life of a bus driver.
Why it made the list: Jim Jarmusch films are deliberately slow, minimalist, and eschew typical plot structure. Paterson is no different: Adam Driver stars as a bus driver named Paterson living a decidedly normal life with his artist girlfriend in Paterson, New Jersey. It's a movie about sameness and routine. But just like the character Paterson writes poetry that refuses to rhyme, the movie Paterson flows visually and soulfully with the poetry of simple life- it's not obvious and you must actively seek it, but oh how rewarding a discovery. Best dog performance of the year too.
Why it's not higher: Though some abnormal events help catch our attention, the fact that the majority of them occur on the same day distracts from the film's hypnotic vibe. A movie this slow and long will require a moderate amount of patience. Speaking of...
*released wide to theaters on January 6th
-adapted by Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks from Shūsaku Endō's Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese
What is it? Legendary director Martin Scorsese's passion project, 25 years in the making. Two 17th century Catholic priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are sent to Japan to save their former mentor (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have abandoned God in Nagasaki.
Why it made the list: This film is a triumph because it devastatingly and grandiosely does the opposite of what inept 'Christian movies' set out to do. Silence asks faith-shaking hard questions about religion, evangelism, culture, and doubt; it paints Christian belief as a complex moral maze of grey areas and struggles in the face of an oftentimes silent God. Its chief question is 'how much can faith and doubt coexist and still be called faith?', which Scorsese asks with striking religious imagery and violent beauty. Andrew Garfield's conviction fits such an atmosphere.
Why it's not higher: Martin Scorsese's magnum opus is in here two or three times somewhere. Silence, at nearly three hours, gets harrowingly repetitive. A movie this long and heady will require an exceptional amount of patience, but the ending scenes are worth it.
10. LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP
-adapted by Whit Stillman from Jane Austen's Lady Susan, directed by Whit Stillman
What is it? A Jane Austen film for people who hate Jane Austen (the author of Pride and Prejudice and other high school favorites).
Why it made the list: It's the funniest comedy of 2016. Though it's based on one of Jane Austen's early novels, it satirizes her style by making fun of its own story and characters. Love and Friendship relentlessly mocks Austen's romance and pomp-laden bourgeois sensibilities, through pointing out its own folly with sharp direction and an exceedingly witty screenplay. Tom Bennett is laugh out loud hilarious as a clumsy suitor and Kate Beckinsale reminds us she's more than an action heroine by slyly laying into the repurposing of Austen's work.
Why it's not higher: A matter of pacing, really. The first two thirds of the film are far funnier than the last act. It's almost forgivable when the concentration of jokes earlier on is so side-splitting though. The ending just feels like actual Jane Austen.
9. SING STREET
-written and directed by John Carney
What is it? A musical about an Irish boy who forms a band to rebel against his strict school and win over the girl of his dreams.
Why it made the list: Unadulterated joy and creativity. Sing Street is the cinematic antonym of cynicism: an idealistic celebration of the connection between love and artistic pursuit. Musical virtuoso John Carney (the mind behind the sweetly affecting Once) takes several pessimistic themes- a family falling apart, a deadbeat brother with unrealized dreams, a young girl with no ties to anyone- and writes a group of young musicians that fight it all with music, complete with fist-pumping jabs at authority. The result is pure, infectious happiness. Soundtrack is great too!
Why it's not higher: The central boy and his romantic interest don't receive enough character development to flesh out their relationship. As such, anything involving only them is comparatively conventional next to the distinctive band.
8. I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
*released wide to theaters on February 3rd
-written by the late James Baldwin, directed by Raoul Peck
What is it? See below!
Why it made the list: In 1979, prolific African-American poet and activist James Baldwin began work on his final book Remember This House, about the assassinations of black leaders and friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and MLK Jr. He died during writing and the book went unread- until now. Director Raoul Peck obtained the unfinished notes from Baldwin's family estate and spent a decade making I Am Not Your Negro, a film that narrates Baldwin's brilliant thoughts about blackness in the American context and juxtaposes them over past and modern footage of race relations. It transcends what documentaries can be and relays a necessary message. And Samuel L. Jackson narrates it.
Why it's not higher: James Baldwin was so intelligent that condensing his work into a 95 minute film makes for a strenuous intellectual exercise. I found myself pausing the documentary for long stretches at a time to think, so it's perhaps best watched alone or with a thinking partner.
7. THE HANDMAIDEN
-written by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung, directed by Park Chan-wook
What is it? A South Korean/Japanese erotic psychological thriller/mystery/romance. Yes, it is all of those things.
Why it made the list: They don't make 'em like this anymore. By 'they' I mean sane people and by 'anymore' I mean no one really has ever. But Park Chan-wook, director of the original Oldboy, has such a tight and disturbing vision for The Handmaiden that it unexplainably balances all of its genres. A story of con artists, rich perverts, violent lust and unlikely romance, The Handmaiden has more plot twists than seven seasons of a TV show. Mix in hauntingly elegant cinematography and the best shot sex scenes I've ever seen, and you have a deliciously strange recipe.
Why it's not higher: As big of a deal as the film makes about punishing those who fetishize lesbian relationships, it is itself guilty of minor transgressions of a similar order. The second act spends a tad too long explaining a major plot twist.
6. THE LOBSTER
-written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
What is it? A black comedy that satirizes modern dating and relationships which transitions into a black comedy satirizing modern singleness and independence.
Why it made the list: The concept behind The Lobster is so bizarre that only a truly talented and idiosyncratic filmmaker could bring it life. In a dystopian society where being single is illegal, lonely humans are sent to a hotel where they have 45 days to find a life partner or else they will be turned into an animal of their choice. Lanthimos boils down his characters into darkly funny pieces of society's romance-obsessed clockwork, milking his premise for all the satire it's worth. For all the discomfort The Lobster creates, it still manages to tell a bittersweet love story too.
Why it's not higher: There is a recognizable turning point in the film where the pacing slows considerably and the humor becomes subtler. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but the tonal shift is jarring halfway through and recovery takes a little while.
5. DON'T THINK TWICE
-written and directed by Mike Birbiglia
What is it? An indie dramedy about an improv group's brushes with fame (or the lack thereof).
Why it made the list: Remember nine entries ago when I explained what mumblecore was? Don't Think Twice is the best 2016 effort to spring from that genre. It tenderly blends drama and comedy in a world that looks and sounds exactly like ours. At its heart, the movie is about the costs of pursuing artistic dreams and how such a vocation effects the bonds of friendship and family. Each character in the sketch comedy troupe- especially Keegan-Michael Key and Community's Gillian Jacobs- struggles with immensely relatable personal conflict.
Why it's not higher: There are a few segments that fall flatter than the rest of the film, when neither the drama nor the comedy are cogent. These sequences are rare though.
4. A MONSTER CALLS
*released wide to theaters on January 6th
-adapted by Patrick Ness from his own A Monster Calls, directed by J. A. Bayona
What is it? The tale of a young boy who dreams up an imaginary friend to deal with loneliness and fear over his mother's cancer.
What it made the list: I was expecting an unassuming kids' movie. What I got was a deeply emotional tour de force that made me weep uncontrollably for thirty minutes. If you want to teach young ones- or to remind your adult self- about the harsh realities and murky moralities of life, A Monster Calls is a stunning ode to the complexity of the human experience. The art direction- which includes watercolor and stop motion- brings the world and Liam Neeson's tree monster to life, but it's the performances of Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Lewis MacDougall that bring the film down to earth. God, I'm crying while writing this paragraph.
Why it's not higher: There is one scene near the end that blatantly spells out the movie's overall point and themes. It's an out of place on-the-nose moment in an otherwise layered film.
3. AMERICAN HONEY
-written and directed by Andrea Arnold
What is it? An impoverished 18-year-old girl joins a group of hedonistic young scam artists traveling the country for money and drugs.
Why it made the list: Andrea Arnold is a filmmaker who tells multiple stories at once by delicately unfolding a deceptively simple one. On the surface, American Honey is the coming of age journey of Star, who ditches a life of nothing for one of pleasure. But visually and thematically: it deconstructs the 'YOLO' mindset by depicting its natural end, explores the consequences of white nationalism and selfish capitalistic gain, threads connections between patriarchy and sexual ethics, and dances around the loss of innocence. Newcomer Sasha Lane is mesmerizing as Star but it's Shia LaBeouf who deserves awards for his nuanced craft. Seriously.
Why it's not higher: Again, a film is undermined by its excessive length. American Honey's main flaw is that it contains too much of a good thing, which gets tiring at almost three hours.
2. 20TH CENTURY WOMEN
*released wide to theaters on January 13th
-written and directed by Mike Mills
What is it? The lives of three women- an aging mother, a young adult artist, and a teenage girl- through the lenses of their own selves and a teenage boy who lives with them.
Why it made the list: If your favorite aspect of the film medium is characters you care about, this will be your personal favorite of the year. The characters that face life together in this movie are so genuinely human that saying goodbye to them at the credits feels like a true loss. 20th Century Women knows an important key to great filmmaking: to make resonant statements about profundities like femininity, love, and the passage of time, one must write people that believably interact within such spaces. Mike Mills writes these people perfectly. The movie earns my picks for Best Actress (Annette Bening), Best Supporting Actress (Greta Gerwig), Best Cinematography (it's wondrous and colorful), and Best Original Screenplay.
Why it's not higher: It didn't fundamentally change me for the better as much as...
-adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, directed by Denis Villeneuve
What is it? When aliens arrive on Earth, brilliant linguist Louise (Amy Adams) must attempt to establish first communication with them. But that's just the outer narrative.
Why it's the best film of 2016: This masterpiece makes one think harder, feel stronger, and experience truth more than any other cinematic experience in recent memory. Arrival uses its sci-fi story as a conduit to intellectually explore concepts like fate, time, free will, and the sanctity of life; to emotionally explore the essential tenants of humanity, connection, love, and what it means to choose good. It is a film that demands repeated dissection: I saw it the day before the U.S. election and spent weeks pondering the relationship between time and destiny, many friends saw it in a post-election context and further understood the hope that comes from authentically empathizing with those who are not like you. And Arrival looks fantastic- a veritable universe of breathtaking imagery. Best Director; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film of 2016.
Thanks for reading :)
I'm going to go celebrate finishing this list by sitting... somewhere dark with a movie playing.