(Best poster of the year. I’d like to see just the torn out piece in a sister poster.)
“He’d brought along “Michael,” a recent release, but twenty minutes after popping it into the VCR he got bored and switched to an old favorite, a Jean Claude Van Damme slugfest called “Bloodsport,” which he pronounced “an incredible, fantastic movie.” By assigning to his son the task of fast-forwarding through all the plot exposition—Trump’s goal being “to get this two-hour movie down to forty-five minutes”-“ – The New Yorker profiling Donald Trump in 1997
“There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute, and perhaps even annihilating, awe.” – Christian Wiman in the gorgeous essay I will love you in the summertime.
“In L.A. they worship everything and value nothing.” – La La Land
2016 – Oy. What can be said that hasn’t already been shouted? It’s hard to talk about 2016 and not address the 300 hundred pound orange gorilla in the room. Yes, we now how have an openly racist, openly misogynist, openly doofy president elect. Politics seemed to be the dreary static surrounding everything this year. Even the incredible highs of 2016 – the Cubs winning the world series, Colbert’s return to the Turkey Talk Line, that guy stealing 86lbs of gold off a truck – felt like they were covered in the grime of our double bacon cheddar-soon to be-commander in chief.
But as far as films go, 2016 was a sneaky little year. Despite being one of the best cinematic years in recent memory, all the great films felt like non-events. So many of the year’s best came in under the radar. Perhaps because there’s an ever widening gulf separating the so called “great” films from what people actually pay to go see. Literally 10 out of 10 of the year’s top grossing films featured superheroes or talking animals, and exactly zero of those films made any critics top ten list. Only three of the ten golden globes nominees made more than 50 million dollars. Anyone wondering about the two Americas need look no further than the movies. Every critic, every media beacon called Moonlight the best film of the year….but during its entire theatrical release it made approximately as much as Dirty Grandpa did on its opening weekend.
Which makes the work of the critics seem even more essential. More and more the role of a film critic seems to be championing a small movie that otherwise might go unnoticed, and often times still does. With entertainment options multiplying like fruit flies in a freshman dorm room, the critic is our last, best hope as curator. We look to them to hoist on high the Mongolian documentary about one girl’s quest to train birds of prey (The Eagle Huntress) because that’s a film that should be seen – but will never have one one-hundredth of the machinery behind the next Marvel pocket liner.
Yet, all that being said, let’s briefly talk about Ouija 2: Origin of Evil. Despite the separation of taste I just mentioned, every year sees the release of films that are designed to be slight, films that are designed to be small and unmemorable. Films that will stick around in the brain for only a matter of hours, hanging out, before they move onto the $2 DVD bins of Wal-marts throughout the midwest. These films are incredibly important. Part of “the movies” power has always been the audience. And what a film like Ouija 2 does is it puts people together in a room. In a time when we’ve built up walls around every goddam commodity we consume, and we have leaders only promising to build more, a movie like Ouija 2 can, and still does, get a vast swath of different people together in a room: black, white, rich, poor – in a time when even our even our milk has been politicized, we should celebrate the things we can still agree on. And everyone can agree that when the mother in Ouija 2 decides to venture down into the hidden Nazi grave basement, IT’S A MAJOR fucking mistake!
So as much as my list celebrates the “great”, the mediocre are just as important. Movies remain because they’ll always be both, populist and niche in the same flickered breath.
Now, onto the list. All the usual caveats apply. I’ve yet to see a lot of stuff. (American Honey, Silence, Personal Shopper, Fences, Julieta, etc.) Not to mention, this year was overflowing with good, so I haven’t included a lot (Love and Friendship, Don’t Think Twice, 20th Century Woman, Rogue One). Also, it’s ridiculous to try and rank something like The Handmaiden against Manchester By The Sea, it’s like ranking candles against canned ham…..regardless, here goes:
11) Making A Murderer: Okay, so technically this came out at the end of 2015. But like most people I didn’t watch it until January, 2016. And while so many critics have been rhapsodizing over OJ: Made in America, Making A Murderer is an equal, if not greater, triumph. OJ is a known quantity, but the filmmakers behind Making A Murder (Moira Demos and Laura Riccardi) took a completely unknown subject, setting, crime, and created maybe the most compelling ten+ hours of documentary I’ve ever seen. I walked away feeling such intense shame and anger and sympathy. Not since Murder on A Sunday Morning had my faith in our justice system been so thoroughly rattled.
10) 10 Cloverfield Lane – Hollywood’s recent fascination with trapping women in small rooms (Room, Split, 10 Cloverfield Lane) continues to wield interesting, if uncomfortable, results. I’m sure a grad student is currently working on a scathing social critique of the Patriarchy using these films, as they should, but in the meantime, 10 Cloverfield Lane is just a great horror movie. It feels like every month another film is labeled Hitchcockian (Is having your name reduced to an adjective the highest compliment?) but 10 Cloverfield Lane actually deserves the blurbs.
9) The Witch – Eerieness is one of the most underrated qualities of a great scary movie. It’s valued, sure, but rarely discussed with the same fervor of jumps or monsters or guts. But one the hardest things to do is fill the air with dread, and The Witch does it in spades. In a year of bizarre left field endings, The Witch’s feels entirely earned. Perfectly cast. The father (Ralph Ineson) and mother (Kate Dickie) look like they just stepped off the Mayflower. An irrefutable argument for casting directors to get Oscars.
8) A Bigger Splash -Sumptuous is not a word I feel comfortable saying aloud, but for A Bigger Splash it totally applies. A beautiful, beautiful film. A Bigger Splash is like going to an expensive restaurant with the company credit card. The first couple hours feel alive with excitement and hedonism, but in the last moments, as the check comes and the food starts to settle, the realization dawns that indulgence is just as much a curse as wanting. Ralph Fiennes is magnetic. Dakota Johnson is phenomenal, put her in everything.
7) Hail, Caesar! – The Coen brothers get wayyyyy too much credit for their “serious” films and never enough credit for their comedies. Unlike No Country for Old Men, which is so self consciously “artistic” that it almost smothers itself, Hail, Caesar! feels like a film the Coen’s would genuinely want to watch. Anyone can polish a thing until it lacks rough edges, but I’d much rather see films with a beating heart underneath – practice makes perfect, but perfection is often boring. It’s why I’ll always take Boogie Nights over There Will Be Blood, and Rushmore over The Grand Budapest Hotel. Hail, Caesar! is great filmmakers making a great film that’s not concerned with convincing you it’s “great”. George Clooney is always excellent as a lunk. Josh Brolin perfectly embodies the absurdity of duty.
6) The Handmaiden – A twisted beautiful knot of a movie. Just when you think you have it sorted, there’s one more end to pull. The way Park Chan-wook moves his camera is like no one else. Certain images still haunt me – a black tongue, a wooden mannequin, an eye peering through a hole – The Handmaiden is cinema down to its bones. If anything, The Handmaiden is probably too low on my list. I could see it taking on City of God level status, the film that sparks a whole new generation of filmmakers.
5) Nocturnal Animals – On the universal orange juice scale of pulp, Nocturnal Animals is akin to buying the fruit and eating it whole. It’s a snow white knuckle film, full of cliches, patently absurd, and deliberately uneven. I couldn’t get enough. The highway breakdown scene is immersive in the sense that you literally feel like you’re drowning. Amy Adams and Armie Hammer are meant to remake Double Indemnity, pray someone (Warner Brothers???) makes it happen.
4) Hell or High Water – The final stand off between Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges could be the best individual scene of the year. I was floored by David Mackenzie’s ability to seamlessly integrate modern realities into what can feel like a dated genre (the Western). It literally made me reconsider what a Western could be, and not by interrogating the form, but rather by just making a crackling, well-paced Texan cops and robbers.
Sidenote: Hell or Highwater cements Bridges status as America’s Michael Caine. Or maybe Michael Caine is Britain’s Jeff Bridges? Either way, they both bring a sense of wry vitality to their roles. Each has the unique ability to make great films stick.
3) Manchester By The Sea – Boston and the surrounding area have recently been Hollywood’s playground for addressing the lives of “working class” people (The Town, Mystic River, The Fighter, etc.). Is it because actors love doing the accent? Is it because so many writers come from the Northeast? Unclear. But what pulls Manchester By The Sea higher and higher is the writing. No one on this planet writes dialog as perfect, as realized, as transcendent as Kenneth Lonergan. He’s able to maintain drama and real rhythms of human conversation with every single word.
There’s a gut-wrenching scene where Joe (Kyle Chandler) and a young Patrick (Ben O’Brien) are moving Lee (Casey affleck) into his new apartment, post tragedy. The entire scene is a masterclass, but it starts with young Patrick running up to the basement window, jumping up to see outside, hanging there, and dismissively stating “cool”, before hopping back down. That moment floored me with its truth. Any other filmmaker would’ve skipped it entirely and focused on the two adults in the room. In Manchester By The Sea, the individual moments, the details, make it incredible.
2) Moonlight – The cross dissolve between Chiron driving back to Miami and a group kids playing in the waves is everything you need to know. Yes, on its face this is a movie about a gay black drug dealer with a crack smoking mother coming of age in the projects. But all those silos do complete injustice to the fragile, aching beauty of this film. Moonlight is almost the anti-The Wire, less concerned about the structures of a world, more concerned with the people living in it. The grace of Moonlight continues to break your heart, whether it’s the slight bend of a head in realization, or an open field dog pile – this is a film about weight, the weight of identity, the weight of our past, the weight of being human whatever the outcome.
1) La La Land – It was a tough year to pick one movie as “best”, and who the hell knows, maybe La La Land won’t hold up on further viewing. Maybe it’s too sentimental or backward looking or indulgent. All I know is that when Emma Stone stands in front of those casting directors near the end of the film, and she’s asked to tell a story, and she starts to sing – well, by the end of her song I was wiping my eyes with the popcorn bag. It’s a rare moment when the emotional stakes are so high and the swell of feeling so palpable that bursting into song seems completely justified. It’s not a practiced act demanded by the genre or the material – but a legitimate emotional response to the moment.
La La Land is incredible in a thousand ways. The rich color palate, eschewing the current trend of muted, Fincher-ian washed out colors. The fearlessness of minimal editing, allowing the actors to inhabit characters with their entire bodies rather than just their faces. The little tricks of classical cinema – iris shots, matches on action, long glances over the shoulder. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling never overplay their hand. As capital D dramatic as the film feels, it never crosses over to maudlin, there’s always a spark of knowingness, of honesty, beneath every tap dance and sashay.
Looking back over the years, often the “best” film comes down to totality of the experience. A lot of my picks, The Revenant, Interstellar, Gravity, aren’t just truthful or insightful or well acted, but they embrace the experience of seeing a film. (These films also always receive the same contrarian pushback, inevitably telling you not to enjoy the thing you enjoy because it’s just too enjoyable. Even if I kinda agree with some). The theater is what makes films different – a great film should lose something on small screens, or streaming, or broken up by bathroom breaks. They only work with full immersion. They succeed when you allow yourself that “absolute awe”. La La Land is no different, and if you come to it open, you’ll experience that unique cinematic thing, the sound and light and pang that makes moviegoing a special kind of hypnosis.
Worst Film of The Year: Deadpool. – Deadpool is this generation’s Boondock Saints. It purposely mistakes dick jokes for wit, cruelty for humor, and TJ Miller for comedic relief. Deadpool is the ultimate internet troll of a film. Deadpool is like watching your 13 year old cousin play GTA in a foreclosed home. Deadpool is the film that plays in the background of an unsettling amateur porn. Deadpool is that apartment where the residents only have Muscle Milk and a massive flatscreen tv. Deadpool belongs in a class with Family Guy, Dead Girl, and certain episodes of Breaking Bad – pieces of content that never earn their vulgarity and cruelty, but nonetheless employ it relentlessly as a cover for their complete lack of originality. In short, it’s the perfect film for the Trump era.
Best Chemistry: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Cafe Society definitively confirms that these two are one of the truly great romantic pairings of the last decade. The way they look at each other can turn sentences on the page into paragraphs on screen.
Best/Worst source material of the year: Mr. Church. This Eddie Murphy vehicle proudly dubbed itself as being ….”Based on a true friendship.”….. It isn’t a film based on a book, or story, or even a fucking board game, but a friendship?! What?! I have two roommates and we’re friends, where’s our six picture deal??
The “Man + Gun = $” Award: The Accountant. Every white male actor has their “I know how to use a gun” role. George Clooney (The American, The Peacemaker) Matt Damon (The Bourne Tetralogy), Tom Cruise (every other Tom Cruise movie throughout his entire career. The ol’ “one for me, one for the gun industry” rule). So in the vein of every lead-laden midlife crisis, The Accountant carries on the proud tradition of taking a regular looking white guy and giving him a weapon. Wait, he can do math and load an AR-15?? Mind blown.
The “Surprise! I’m President Trump” Worst ending of the year award: Midnight Special It’s completely unfair to dismiss the incredible, nuanced work Jeff Nichols does for almost all of Midnight Special just because of it’s ending. But it’s also unfair for the most qualified candidate in our country’s history to lose an election to an authoritarian planter wart. Sorry, we’re reminded, life has never been fair. The final reveal of the alien world at the end of Midnight Special stands in such sharp contrast to the illusory quality of the rest of the film, you almost wonder if it was studio mandated.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Award for Existing: Pete’s Dragon. I have no interest in visiting rural Alaska to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. However, I love that it exists. It gives me comfort to know that there’s a place on earth untouched by man’s grubby little fingers. The same can be said for Pete’s Dragon. I saw it. It was fine. But I love knowing that it exists. I love knowing there’s still a place for mature, inward looking children’s films. A children’s film that doesn’t lecture, but listens.
Well, there you have it. 2016, in like a lion, out like a lion about to lose his health insurance. Good luck in 2017 everybody. Thanks for reading.