Movies aren’t dying. They’re not. They’re not dying because of more and more first-run filmmaking moving to streaming platforms. They’re not dying in the name of a globalized box office market, even if that’s going to dramatically change what they’re going to look like by the time the transition is over. They’re not dying because of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice being a bad movie. They’re not dying because of artistic bankruptcy, no matter how many times people who live in Internet bubbles decide that’s the case because [insert critical darling] didn’t find a massive mainstream audience. They’re not dying. Just keep saying it to yourself over and over again until you have it right. Movies aren’t dying.
You’re already probably aware that 2016 was a pretty rough year for any person with a still-functioning moral compass. In that spirit, we’ll spare you any further reminders of how and why it was, because we’re not here to talk about all the movies that left us deflated, made us question the industry’s motives and vision, or reminded us that the franchise era is only going to claim more casualties before it abates. We’ve done enough of that for one year, and with fare like Emojimovie: Express Yourself on its way in 2017, we’ll likely find ourselves doing it again in due time.
Right now, though, we’re here to celebrate the great movies of 2016, the ones which moved us to laughter, tears, or overwhelmingly awkward discomfort. If major studios are trying to negotiate the tricky balance of artistic quality and economic imperatives, every so often they’ve found a way to succeed beyond all expectation. And it’s worth mentioning here that smaller studios like A24, Oscilloscope, and other notable independent bodies are still finding great lower-budget work and getting it in front of the people who appreciate it most, and they’re doing so with remarkable rates of success. Again, movies aren’t dying. They’re just migrating and changing, as they always will from time to time.
This year’s list, assembled after many hours of spirited debate among our staff, is proof that the stories being told are as innovative as they’ve ever been. And we’d like to think that there’s something for everybody here. Interested in a three-hour German seriocomedy about estranged families? We have you covered. An equally lengthy treatise on the indifference of God by one of cinema’s foremost artists? That too. We have an animated parable about the beauty and inevitability of loss, a screwball Shane Black comedy, a violent battle between a band of DIY punks and neo-Nazis, and an eight-hour documentary about one of America’s greatest and most telling modern tragedies.
There’s a lot of loss in many of our films this year, in one form or another, and maybe that’s our best commentary on the year that was. In one part of our list, a pair of bank robbers and an exhausted sheriff reckon with the 2008 banking crisis’ ground-level fallout in their own violent ways. In another, the disappearance of a small child sends a family into horrifying turmoil. Lonely women are driven to extremes, whether by the pressures of a family Thanksgiving or the sadistic thrills of taking another human life knowing that nobody will catch you. A young boy disappears into the woods and ends up pursued by half of New Zealand. The wife of a slain US president reckons with what life will be after the initial uproar dies down.
And yet, there’s hope too. There’s hope in a young boy becoming a young man in phases, learning how to live for himself even in the worst circumstances. There’s hope in star-crossed lovers dancing their way through a never-lovelier Los Angeles and in a woman finding the heart of all humanity when faced with extraterrestrial life. Hope in a broken man finding the possibility of salvation through family and in a pair of unlikely lovers running away from horrific circumstances in Japanese-occupied Korea. There’s hope in maturity, in the untamed corners of America still left to find, and in the simplicity of love, no matter who it’s with or where it’s found.
The movies are doing just fine, and if you’re still in doubt, read ahead as we break down our top 25 films of 2016. Check out the ones you haven’t yet, even if you have to dig around a little bit for them. And the next time you feel like everything is rehashed or forced into endless sequels: yeah, a lot of that is happening these days, but there’s still a wealth of exciting, innovative, essential filmmaking to be seen, talked about, argued about on Twitter, and loved for the many different reasons that people love movies. It’s out there waiting to be found, as it’s been since the early 1900s and always will be. Hopefully.
25. The Neon Demon
The Neon Demon is a vain movie. Like its cast of razor-thin, airbrushed models, the film’s infinitely more concerned with how it looks than it is constructing any semblance of depth. With a filmmaker as beguiling as Nicolas Winding Refn, the iconoclast behind divisive gut-punches like Drive and Bronson, it’s natural to want to dig deeper, to find the cutting satire beneath the film’s shallow, clunky script. That’s a fool’s errand, though, because The Neon Demon wants only for you to look at it, admire it, and succumb to it.
Elle Fanning is striking and subdued as Jesse, a 16-year-old weaving her way into LA’s self-obsessed modeling scene. Early on, she functions as an audience surrogate of sort, a stranger in a strange land seduced by uncanny sights and sounds. On the latter front, Cliff Martinez’s eerie, star-dusted score sets a glass-like tone that’s cracking by the minute, while Refn’s Kubrickian visuals are as sumptuous as they are cold and distancing, most notably during a circus-like performance in a cavernous club that serves as the most inspired pairing of the two.
It’s easy to feel distanced by Jesse’s journey as well, which transforms from a standard coming-of-age tale to something much more sinister, a bundle of visual metaphors that couldn’t possibly be more on the nose. But that’s the point: No matter how lovely and complex things may present themselves in this world, they are entirely hollow inside — like glass figures ready to shatter.
24. The Nice Guys
The Nice Guys is one of those movies that drives so many writers to wax nostalgic on how “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” and its paltry box office haul this past summer suggests one strong possibility as to why they don’t. Yet it’s impossible not to hope that Shane Black’s funny, violent, pratfall-heavy buddy action-comedy will find new life in the homes of eager viewers. Black’s one of the few filmmakers still carrying the torch for oddball stories of pseudo-criminal ne’er-do-wells, in an era that likes its heroes anti- and its world-building as sequel-friendly as possible. And God bless him for it.
As an impossibly small-time PI and a heavy-for-hire, respectively, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe dive headfirst into Black’s wordy, referential screenplay with vigor, sinking their collective teeth into every rapid one-liner while tangled in a web of sex, murder, and constantly pissy one-upsmanship in 1970s Los Angeles. Where other filmmakers might bend over backwards to immerse audiences in a time and place, Black seems to mostly just enjoy the over-the-top aesthetics and attitudes of the time and stages his best modern approximation of a Lethal Weapon while keeping the focus where it belongs: Crowe’s imposing physicality and Gosling’s remarkable knack for turning acts as simple as smoking a cigarette on the toilet or punching through a window into comic gold.
What is love? Many have tried to answer this befuddling question: poets, young paramours, and ’90s dance club sensation Haddaway. In his deceptively simple film Loving, director Jeff Nichols does not attempt to answer this ancient quandary. Instead, he presents an example of pure, honest affection. In Loving, love is not the sentiment found on Hallmark cards but rather something elemental.
The film recounts the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively), an interracial couple fighting for their right to live and love in their home state of Virginia. While the film sets out the milestones in their lives together, their engagement and various losses and victories in the American legal system, Nichols finds the real narrative in the eyes of his two lead performers.
After a small misstep with this year’s Midnight Special, Loving finds Nichols back in fine form. In the hands of another director, the film could have easily been a preachy, true-life drama. Nichols lingers on the faces of Edgerton and Negga, and what passes between the two actors is something powerful. As he previously did with his constant collaborator, Michael Shannon, the director lets the topography of the human visage tell his story. Edgerton’s intense gaze and Negga’s wide, hopeful eyes tell the audience all they need to know.
As in Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, Nichols’ minimalist storytelling presents an America where home and family are the highest currency. Loving may not give us answers, but it shows us a love for which we should all strive.
22. Hell or High Water
If last year’s Sicario made Taylor Sheridan a name to watch, then Hell or High Water makes him a name to know. The former Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy star has found a second life in screenwriting, and he’s about to nab another Academy Award nomination come January. Rest assured, it’s all deserved: Sheridan has a tight grip on old-school storytelling, ably carving out singular characters that have that larger-than-life effect without ever leaving our hemisphere. For his latest venture behind the typewriter, he teamed up with Starred Up director David Mackenzie to tell a raw, bare-bones story about two troubled brothers desperately trying to find a future for their family amid tough economical times.
Jeff Bridges steals the show with his crusty performance as Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, chasing down Chris Pine and Ben Foster’s brotherly bank robbers with the type of laid-back wisdom that could only come from a veteran of his stature. The chase comes natural to him, though. It’s the whole retirement and mortality that’s weighing down on his shoulders, and watching him subtly and not-so-subtly wrestle with those issues is what makes him such an intriguing character. That’s not to say Pine and Foster don’t have their own share of quirks. The former plays to his benevolent charms in ways we’ve never seen before, while the latter offers up another wicked bastard for us to love and hate.
With equal strokes of Eastwood and Coen brothers, Hell or High Water paints a very lonely picture. Much like Pine and Foster’s steely-eyed leads, Sheridan and Mackenzie stroll through the many abandoned, forgotten towns of West Texas with a purpose. They want to capture a lost part of America that was stripped away a long, long time ago and show how it’s still hanging on by tooth and nail. These are people who have lost all faith in their once-sacred institutions, blurring the lines between good and bad or right and wrong without much pause. Because, as they’ve learned, nothing comes easy for anyone in this winded frontier, and eventually it all boils down to agency and what little you have left to lose.
21. The Witch
Robert Eggers’ folkloric horror film The Witch considers 17th century New England as a place defined, first and foremost, by its boundaries. Early Puritan settlements were often harsh and oppressive places to live, but at least they offered some small measure of safety to their inhabitants. To be banished from one of these settlements was nearly tantamount to a death sentence, as it meant crossing over the boundary that separated civilized society from the untamed wilderness, where savages, beasts, and supernatural horrors awaited.
Eggers’ film centers on a stubborn zealot named William, who abandons his Puritan settlement over a religious quibble and attempts to build a farm out in the wild along with his wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and twins Mercy and Jonas. William chooses to locate his farm on the edge of a large, dark forest, which serves as a visual metaphor for the conflicts that shape what unfolds in The Witch – freedom vs. oppression, safety vs. danger, and, above all, good vs. evil.
Showing uncommon depth and nuance in his directorial debut, Eggers refuses to take a firm side in any of these debates, leaving the viewer (and the family, as well) guessing as to where the true darkness actually resides. Is it in the heart of Thomasin, who is constantly blamed and gaslighted into thinking that maybe, just maybe, Satan has been using her in nefarious ways? Is it in William, whose unwavering faith has led his family to the brink of destruction? Is it in the witch who resides in the wilderness, or in the little goat called Black Phillip? Great horror films don’t provide easy answers to these kinds of questions, and The Witch is undoubtedly a great horror film, a slow-burning epic that blurs the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural until they become one and the same.
20. Toni Erdmann
Near the end of Toni Erdmann’s 162 minutes of uncomfortable comedy and even less comfortable human truth, Sandra Hüller’s straitlaced, professionally ambitious corporate type, Ines, breaks into a show-stopping rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” in front of a party mostly filled with strangers. It’s just one of a long line of instances in the film in which Ines is aggressively forced out of her comfort zone, but it’s one of the most poignant among them. As Ines tears through Houston’s reminder that “If I fail, if I succeed/ At least I’ll live as I believe/ No matter what they take from me/ They can’t take away my dignity,” it’s a transcendent moment, one that’s at once excessively ridiculous and heartbreaking in context of every moment leading to it.
On paper, Toni Erdmann is the story of Ines reconnecting with her semi-estranged father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an oddball type given to donning a bad wig and fake teeth and posing as Toni Erdmann, a business consultant who shows up unannounced to challenge the opportunistic fakery of Ines’ life. In practice, Maren Ade’s singular film finds comedy and tragedy alike in scene after scene, whether it’s watching Ines work herself into a rage attempting to zip her own dress or Winifried gazing sadly across a nightclub as his daughter drags herself through another long night of being somebody she isn’t for people who’ll never really care. It’s profoundly humane, a laurel not typically reserved for a film that involves a frenzied progression of unexpected full-frontal nudity for its climax. In its constant clash of the light and dark in life, often simultaneously, it defies easy categorization. But Ade’s film is the rare wonder in any year of filmmaking that leaves you telling everyone you know that you’ve never seen anything like it.
19. The Eyes of My Mother
Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother is an exhausting, chilling, and even frustrating 77 minutes. It’s simple horror, a tale that could happen at any time in any rural setting, which is partly why it’s so hard to discern exactly what era it even takes place in. Pesce uses that curious trait to his advantage, turning his debut feature film into an exercise of terror as he slowly digs deeper and deeper into a downward spiral of hopelessness. Like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or William Lustig’s Maniac, this is a film that’s less concerned with its tragic victims and more in tune with its silent killer, and Pesce blurs the lines by offering a jarring point of view that’s both intimately personal and distantly sterile.
We follow the solitary, sordid life of Francisca (Diana Agostini), who witnesses her mother’s death at a very young age at the hands of a roaming, sadistic conman. We think she’s a victim, too — of trauma, of loss, of burden, perhaps — but the tables turn when her father traps the assailant in their farmhouse and passively allows Francisca to perform, well, some very inhuman procedures to his body. Needless to say, she’s been a little too influenced by the biblical story of Saint Francis of Assisi, aka the first recorded person in Christian history to bear the wounds of Christ’s Passion, and it shows in her handiwork that she only learns to excel at as time marches forward and other victims present themselves.
Based on that very vague and very short synopsis, one might consider The Eyes of My Mother to be a garishly violent experience. Not so. Pesce wisely keeps the film’s more despicable proceedings in the dark, both literally and metaphorically, opting for unnerving atmosphere over pedantic gore. It’s a stylistic decision that so many filmmakers working in the genre clumsily ignore, namely because they don’t have the time or the patience. Considering the length of this film, or rather the lack of, it’s quite telling of Pesce’s capabilities as a director that you find yourself wishing he would be more forthcoming, if only because of the anxiety his subtle storytelling brings to the imagination. This shit stays with you.
18. The Lobster
Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language debut became a mild cult sensation this year, and if you’re curious as to why the film found such a passionate mainstream audience for such a bleak movie, ask anybody who’s ever tried to go on a date in the modern world.
The Lobster immerses itself in the casual brutality of finding love (or even just meeting somebody) in the time of the Internet, distilling the typical push-and-pull of trying to figure out somebody’s likes, dislikes, interests, tics, and particular aggravations in a world that staunchly refuses to accept anything less than a timely pairing off. The film’s brilliantly surreal first half plunges viewers into the end of the road in Lanthimos’ deadpan future, as men and women like Colin Farrell’s sad-eyed David have 30 days to find a suitable mate under duress, while hunting and rounding up the single people like themselves who’ve escaped. If they fail, they’re forcibly turned into an animal of their choosing. At the hotel, people are forcibly restrained from sexual gratification, regularly humiliated for their singledom, and generally taught the world’s purest lesson: without a mate, you might as well be a rutting animal.
But it’s in the film’s oft-debated second half that The Lobster reveals itself as a sharper, more despairing kind of film. Once David gets a taste of The City, the affluent urban metropolis where the well-adjusted and paired-off live in peace, it’s clear that there’s no peace to be had in Lanthimos’ savage world. If you win the contest, you’re rewarded with a life of easy, banal privilege. If you don’t, you live in the forest and dig your own grave. There’s no true happiness anywhere, just the performance of various designated social functions until you die. If you’re lucky.
17. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
With Eagle vs Shark (2007) and Boy (2010), Taika Waititi established himself as a writer/director who could balance complex emotional drama and off-beat comedy with almost effortless humor and resonance. Even the more purely comical What We Do in the Shadows (2014) rooted itself in the vampires’ genuinely empathetic connection to the minimally verbal sweater-wearing human Stu.
Waititi continues to maintain that balance with both entertaining and powerful results in his adaptation of the Barry Crump novel Wild Pork and Watercress. From its very first moments, in which Ricky (Julian Dennison), a teenage delinquent running out of chances, is hoisted upon his new foster parents, Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), by an invested but callous child welfare officer (Rachel House), Hunt for the Wilderpeople manages to be charming and amusing while never losing sight of the serious consequences its characters face. Even as the stakes get higher and Ricky and a very reluctant Hec find themselves on an unintentional journey through the wilderness in the wake of Bella’s death, confronting man, nature, and themselves along the way, that balance never falters.
Depending on your perspective and your cinematic preferences, Wilderpeople, which is heart-wrenching but never maudlin, heart-warming but never cloying, could either be the weirdest family drama of the year or 2016’s sweetest oddball comedy. Wherever you stand, though, there’s probably something that you’ll love about it.
16. The Fits
The worst part of girlhood is groupthink. It doesn’t matter who you talk to about what it’s like to grow up female, their answer will likely fall into that category and, with it, the stresses of never belonging. For a topic so inherent to 50% of the population, it’s overwhelmingly underrepresented in film, but Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits does that with surprising coolness, drawing parallels between boxing and dance, physical and mental strength, and preteen and teenage aging.
Ohio native Toni, an 11-year-old played by Royalty Hightower, ditches her brother’s boxing gym to join the local dance team and, in time, witnesses an inexplicable pandemic of violent fits that takes over the girls one by one. The Fits is as much a mystery as it is a narrative of a whole, of girls who struggle to fit in, of tomboys who reject stereotyped femininity, and of women of color who find themselves on the fringe. Visually, it’s stunning. The Fits pays homage to Gus Van Sant’s long, panning shots and dialogue-free scenes of stress. But Holmer carries her role as director with total poise, positioning symmetrical shots of girls cheerleading in an empty pool alongside those of flippant tension while applying nail polish in a gym hallway. It’s hard to fathom this is Holmer’s directorial debut given the multilayered visuals she threads throughout and her control of a relatively unheard-of cast. The film’s visuals grip viewers’ attention throughout, but it’s the narrative ambiguity that allows so much to be said without uttering a word.
Hightower pushes her character’s role to unexpected heights, almost always wordlessly. Her grace in front of the screen — and, by extension, her hesitance and reservations — voices a generation of women who felt conflicted by parental expectations, social norms, and the desire to be accepted, both among peers and by the world at large. The Fits isn’t just a dance troupe drama. It’s a film about the emotional and mental weight of acceptance and how far someone will go to fit in — even if that finish line is made up — to a mold that rarely represents reality at large.
Jackie is the kind of movie critics often like to call “brave.” But Pablo Larrain’s first American feature, which examines Jackie Kennedy’s grief following the assassination of her husband, the 35th president, is vivid, singular, and just plain gutsy.
JFK is a non-entity in Jackie, seen only in fleeting glimpses. True to its title, Jackie is instead a vehicle for a top-drawer performance from Natalie Portman, who powerfully illustrates the cataclysmic horror of some of the darkest days in American history. Mrs. Kennedy, experiencing PTSD, greets the public in a blood-spattered dress. She wants those responsible for her husband’s murder to see what they’ve done.
The First Lady’s grief and otherworldly perseverance is viewed through interviews with a Life magazine journalist (Billy Crudup) who helps her create the myth of Camelot, a romantic notion of lost royalty that will cement JFK’s legacy in the history books.
The cumulative effect of Jackie, which is bracing and breathtakingly direct in its depiction of violence and its aftermath, is both haunting and stirring. Larrain’s film is a tender and profound portrait of a woman both as grieving widow and symbol, someone whose public resolve helped unite a nation. As a profile in courage — and the woman charged with making a man into an empire — Jackie is unmissable.
14. Kubo and the Two Strings
Travis Knight, CEO of Laika Entertainment, worked as a lead animator on Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls, all of which received Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature. His latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, will be another notch in his Oscar belt. For his directorial debut, Knight creates a spectacle worthy enough to convey the surprisingly adult themes in this tale.
The story follows the young titular hero who’s dealing with the loss of his loved ones and a tortured, extended family that will do anything to reclaim him as their own. With the aid of his magical guitar, Kubo whisks us away with stories that soar far and wide to the transcendent sounds of Dario Marianelli. Parents need not worry, either: Knight delicately balances the film’s dark, adult themes of death and loss.
Unlike so many animated films today, Knight gets the best out of his voice talent: Charlize Theron shines for her portrayal as both Kubo’s haunted mother and mystical monkey, Sherpa; Rooney Mara delivers a chilling performance as the Sisters hot on Kubo’s trail; and Matthew McConaughey brings the laughs as a giant beetle who believes he’s the apprentice of a legendary samurai.
To say too much about the plot would be a disservice; instead, trust that the magic of storytelling is strong with this one, and know that Kubo just may be the best Laika has put out to date. And with that, we’ll leave you with Regina Spektor’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Play it again, Kubo.
Jim Jarmusch’s deceptively simple Paterson finds its momentum not in plot or circumstance, but in the dry laughs and incidental symmetries of everyday life. It’s such an understated film that it hews closer to its protagonist’s unfussy poetry than a traditional narrative feature, but identifying Paterson as merely a tone piece does a disservice to its unique, warmhearted universe.
Largely following the adventures of Paterson (an exceptional Adam Driver) on his daily rounds as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson finds its humor and pathos alike in his fixed daily rituals. In the morning, Paterson wakes up to his loving partner, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), pursuing one of her numerous hobbies and interests. He goes to work and listens to his boss speak woefully about his life’s troubles. He listens in on various bus conversations. At lunch, he writes his poetry, beautiful work that he does more for his own comfort than for any kind of attention. Later, when work is done, Paterson takes his dog for a walk and posts up at a nearby corner bar, a chaotic ecosystem of troubled personalities. And then he wakes up the next day and starts anew.
Jarmusch simply observes Paterson on his appointed rounds as the wandering soul of his town, a creature of staunch routine who often exists as a canvas onto which other people paint their struggles and losses. Yet what lingers after the film ends isn’t any one incident, though several in the film are lovely. It’s the warmth and love Jarmusch finds in even the most banal and tedious instances or the humor of a couple from a different filmmaker’s movie offering one possible epilogue to their own story in the midst of his own. It’s the way that Paterson’s mailbox never stands upright when he comes home or how Laura always finds a different way to bring something new to his day. Paterson is a grateful film, one simply fixated on the joys of being alive at all, no matter what life brings. In its simplicity, it’s endlessly beautiful.
12. American Honey
Rarely has life felt so terrifying and beautiful as it’s depicted in Andrea Arnold’s gritty road drama American Honey. Set across the desperate sprawls of The Greatest Country on Earth, the film follows Sasha Lane’s tough-as-nails teenager, Star, as she encounters marginalized youths — from Miami, New Jersey, Orlando, Texas — who are all in the same sinking boat, busking away at the type of shady jobs we often ignore during our everyday lives. But she’s free, and that freedom is everything to Star and something she refuses to let go at any cost, even if it could mean life, death, or imprisonment.
Like Harmony Korine’s cruelly underrated Spring Breakers before it, American Honey tickles the underbelly of society through monotonous storytelling, the type that slowly bleeds out the beauty through various subversions. Arnold opts out of the dreamy Britney Spears’ covers, though, doubling down on a brand of naturalism that’s typically reserved for jarring documentaries by Vice. It’s felt in the salacious dialogue, the machine-gun action, the tough love, the tougher hate, and, especially, in the music. For 163 whopping minutes, Arnold patiently lets everything live and slowly percolate to the surface, and it’s gorgeous.
Much of that beauty lies in the equally natural performances by newcomer Lane, rising star Riley Keough, and comeback king Shia LaBeouf. Together, the three characters subtly shift and change Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s stunning portraits, framing the film’s evolving microcosm of identity politics. “So you’re a southern girl,” Keough’s villainous Krystal teases Star early on. “A real American honey like me. You know that song?” She doesn’t — and honestly, neither does anyone else who isn’t a Lady Antebellum fan — but it still makes sense to her: She’s a wild, wild whisper, blowin’ in the unforgiving wind.
And the struggle is beautiful.
Catholicism has always been integral to Martin Scorsese’s work, particularly the nasty sides of it. The bloodletting. The suffering. The endless, nagging questions in the face of one’s strongest convictions. Whether in Travis Bickle’s imagined (and/or literal) martyrdom or Goodfellas’ long, inevitable march toward ruination, punishment and piety have always been the questions that occupy the filmmaker most, that find their way into even the most unseeming of his works.
After nearly 30 years of effort and legal wrangling, Silence finally allows the director to explore those ideas in the most direct manner he ever has or likely ever will again. Based on Shûsaku Endô’s classic novel, Scorsese’s film witnesses a different, morally complex kind of passion: that of two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan in the 17th century, when Catholicism was punishable by torture and death. Told that their mentor (Liam Neeson) renounced his faith under pressure of the government, they set out to reaffirm the faith of the remaining fringe loyalists living in secret, even as evidence begins to mount that they may well be doing far more harm than good.
Around midway through the film, Garfield’s empathetic Rodrigues is driven to one of faith’s most complicated questions: “I know that He hears their prayers, but does He also hear their screams?” To Rodrigues, the question starts to emerge of what God would choose these abuses for people and what value devotion holds in a world that responds with violence when God responds with, seemingly, nothing. Despite all of this, Scorsese isn’t simply attacking faith so much as man’s savagery in the name of it. And in his deliberate storytelling and in Garfield’s agonized, never-better performance, he manages to tell the story he’s been waiting a long time to tell. The story of a man who stood witness, knowing that nothing good would come of it for him. Knowing that people would forget someday, no matter what he did.
10. O.J.: Made in America
Save some gas. OJ: Made in America is an incredible film. A very extensive, in-depth, and ceaselessly fascinating one about sports, Americana, and one man’s fall from grace that possesses a sort of embarrassing greatness.
2016 seemed ready to party like it’s 1994. FX aired the vivid The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story in February, and the thing’s dynamite. The fruits of its rapturous melodrama are netting Emmys and Golden Globe nominations here at the end of the year, but even earlier than that, OJ made a return at Sundance with Ezra Edelman’s hypnotic OJ: Made in America. Ever binge an entire TV season in a day? Made in America kind of functions like that. Or like watching the first two Godfathers in a single sitting. It’s a lot to process: eight hours over five chapters, to be exact.
Yet Edelman’s mega-doc is so addictive, and better yet, illuminating. We know the Bronco. The glove. The tragic death of Nicole Brown. Made in America shows you how rich a film can be when allowed to go wide with its material. Born in San Francisco, nurtured by wealth not offered to many black men in his era, Simpson’s rise to collegiate football fame opens the chronological narrative, and from the get-go you’re running with this epic. Think Dickens for the 21st century. You forget the infamy for a second — just one — and you see the promise in this young Simpson, like something out of Rocky.
We witness Simpson’s amazing plays for the Bills. His struggles to retain fame and fortune with commercials, film cameos, and TV announcer gigs. And eventually, Simpson’s grand collapse — an explosive failing and falling out with the public in the weirdest way (that feels startlingly similar to the last act of Scorsese’s Casino). Along the way, Edelman manages to touch on race, class, athleticism, and all the things we take for granted and forget about when we look for that touchdown or that verdict. Made in America is full-blooded storytelling, willing to see the life and times of Orenthal James Simpson, not just through his toxic ‘90s publicity, but as the complete and tragic figure he might well be.
There’s no easy way to talk about rape. After all, it’s rape, a topic and reality that’s never funny in thought or execution. Unwanted sexual advances of any kind, especially those that reach such extremes, cause mental unrest, extreme trauma, and often PTSD. Yet Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s first feature since 2006’s Black Book, toys with that topic without question, offering viewers plenty to chew on long after they exit the theater, a viewing that merits discussion and dissection on numerous levels.
Technically, Elle is a psychological thriller, but it emphasizes the horrid trauma of “psychological” and the total dread of “thriller.” Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle Leblanc, a gaming executive who’s raped by a stranger in the comfort of her own home and then seeks revenge while navigating her lust for a married neighbor. It takes her days to process what happened. She relives the nightmare time and time again. But Huppert, ever the master of psychological shredding, shifts the film from stereotypical revenge to horribly twisted complications. It’s never been so difficult to root for the punishment of an abuser, nor to laugh at the ironic — and often inexplicable — twists of desire. Then again, life never promised to make sense from the get-go.
Verhoeven capitalizes on contradicting beliefs of taboo subjects. Longing is not illicit, though marriage positions it as such. Desire is not unlawful, though the shadowed nature of its wanting suggests otherwise. Leblanc’s shameless longing for her neighbor isn’t praised, but it’s honest, a comedic representation of the ways in which humans ignore their titular roles. As the story develops, so does the complicated relationship between characters and, in turn, the viewer’s condemning of rape, sexual assault, and adultery.
Elle wouldn’t achieve its complicated blurring of lines if it weren’t for Huppert. Her performance articulates the unfathomable trauma of rape as well as the desire for normalcy, including deviant wanting along the way. She normalizes uncertainty, and yet her emotions remain uncertain throughout. By masking facial expressions, Huppert’s character fogs the distraught of rape, and her muddled emotions are all the more valid because of it. She doesn’t have a clear stance because it’s impossible to have a clear stance. Level-headedness rarely becomes a descriptor for the traits of someone who was sexually assaulted, nor does it appear in their desires moving forward. Elle is a movie of internal and external conflict, and Huppert — ever the master of emotional distress in a world unwilling to match that pace — keeps her head above the water just steadily enough to drag viewers along, gasping with disbelief at every unexpected turn along the way.
08. Sing Street
I know a lot of folks who couldn’t get behind Sing Street’s rock ‘n’ roll idealism — how protagonist Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) hangs his idea of happiness on playing in a band, getting a girlfriend, and maybe one day moving to London. But keep in mind that this is a film seen through the eyes of a teenager in working-class Dublin, circa 1985. At that age and under those circumstances, those three factors — music, girls, and getting the hell out of your hometown — do feel like the keys to success. They feel like everything. And really, that’s the only way to appreciate Sing Street — recognizing that, for all the naivete of Conor’s New Wave teen dreams, they’re also a salve for the shittiness in his life. His parents are bitter and unhappy, his older brother views himself as a failure, and he gets bullied by both the students and authority figures at school. While those aren’t the worst problems in the world (or even that unique among young people), they’re still enough to make you feel helpless as a teenager. That pain gets folded into every one of Sing Street’s musical centerpieces, even if it’s not obvious at first.
“Drive It Like You Stole It” is easily the most anthemic of the film’s original compositions, but pay attention to how director John Carney shoots its live performance. While singing, Conor imagines he and his bandmates are playing the song at a 1950s prom a la Back to the Future. Then, reality invades the fantasy when all the sources of trouble in his life (his parents, principal, and romantic rival among them) show up at the dance. But rather than enact any kind of revenge upon them, he envisions these people all dancing and having fun. Even the flat-out abusive priest enters with a double flip, then approvingly points at Conor on the stage. In the kid’s most ideal world, the music isn’t just music; it’s an unstoppable means of peace. Of course, everything crashes back down to reality as soon as the song ends, making you wonder if Conor’s parents will ever find happiness (don’t count on it), if he and his girlfriend, Raphina (Lucy Boynton), will be together forever (probably not), or if he’ll ever achieve the superstardom he so desperately wants and probably deserves (we sure hope so).
So don’t be deceived by the naysayers. Yes, Sing Street is very much about the joy of playing music, of looking up to your older brother. But it’s about doing those things in the face of hardship. It’s about great joy defiantly rising from great pain. It’s about why people start bands in the first place.
Instead of a gun in the first act, Krisha gives viewers a loaded close-up in the first shot: its titular character (Krisha Fairchild) staring straight ahead with haunted eyes and a subtly trembling jaw. And just like that, we know the two things that will drive the rest of writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ taut feature-length debut: first, the woman we’re watching will go off in the final act; and second, we’re in for one hell of a performance from the woman playing her.
With harrowing precision and skill from Fairchild and Shults, that’s exactly how things play out for the rest of Krisha’s tight 81-minute runtime. After a long estrangement, sixtysomething Krisha returns – dragging her suitcase through muddy grass, her hair-trigger temper threatening to go off with every step and every curse muttered under her breath – to visit her family for Thanksgiving and cook them a reconciliatory dinner.
It’s a family drama trapped in a claustrophobic thriller: Krisha and her dysfunctional relatives (played with hyper-realism by a cast largely comprised of Shults’ own family, including his aunt Fairchild) trapped in a house together, with no physical or psychological escape from themselves or each other. Watching both Krisha’s psyche and her family unravel over the course of the day is so accurate and so intense that it’s almost painful to watch at times. But it’s so well executed that it’s impossible to turn away, leaving you staring right back at the titular character, perhaps with a tremble of your own.
If you’re a filmmaker who recently released a movie about children, grief, or both, it’s likely 2016 was a great year for you. You also weren’t alone. From Manchester by the Sea to A Monster Calls, many of the year’s best films dealt with the profundity of loss, but none of them did it quite like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Anchored by what may be a career-best performance from Amy Adams, this subdued, dreamlike piece of science fiction from Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer treats the emotional devastation death can bring as both its centerpiece and just another fact of life. We work, we learn, we smile, we laugh, death comes, the world keeps turning. It’s just that, for some of us, it turns a bit differently.
That’s only part of the picture, of course. When otherworldly ships appear simultaneously around the globe at seemingly random locations, the globe responds, with each nation approaching the visitors differently. The US Military leaps into action, and mercifully, beautifully, and (one would hope) realistically, one of the first people they bring aboard is a linguist (Adams). The importance of language in Arrival would be lovely even were it released in a year other than this one, but as the election cycle reminded us, words matter — and they’re key to this film in particular. That’s all the more important given the vast stretches of silence, often interrupted only by the awed breathing of Adams and Jeremy Renner; it’s a pervasive quiet that seems echoed by the fog from which the heptapods emerge, the gentle but imposing arcs of the ships, and the delicate language in which aliens and humans begin to communicate.
None of this would mean one whit if Arrival weren’t also a damn good yarn. Helped in no small part by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s tremendous score, this is a film that sucks one in and quietly, determinedly, refuses to let go. The “twist,” such as it is, may not work for everyone; as with so many great works of art, your mileage may vary. But those not swept away by the cyclical puzzle box Arrival builds won’t be bored. It’s daring, quiet, calm, and sometimes it’s fucking terrifying. It’s sci-fi at its best, which is to say that it’s profoundly human.
05. La La Land
When director Damien Chazelle announced that he would be following up his Oscar-nominated smash, 2014’s Whiplash, with a modern musical starring two Hollywood darlings (Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone) and that it would also be set in Los Angeles, the entire industry offered up one long collective sigh. It was the sort of ambitious undertaking that could cripple a veteran filmmaker let alone a rookie, even one that had previously dabbled in the genre (see: 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench).
But Chazelle ain’t no rookie, and La La Land is legitimate proof of this. From beginning to end, the balmy musical razzles and dazzles and schmamazzles with aplomb, often teetering on the edge of gaudy but always falling back on unadulterated whimsy. This is assured, jaw-dropping cinema, working off the kind of starved energy that echoes the hungry spirit of the film’s dreamy leads. At nearly 32 years of age, Chazelle is making a laughingstock out of Hollywood with his endless bag of magic tricks.
Of course, he’s not alone: cinematographer Linus Sandgren turns every shot into a startling desktop screensaver, editor Tom Cross keeps the pace both breezy and bouncy, and his ol’ Harvard classmate Justin Hurwitz pens a handful of songs to keep our hearts warm for the winter (“Another Day of Sun”, “City of Stars”). That’s all without mentioning the film’s A-listers who Chazelle capitalizes on to the fullest, from Gosling’s divine physical comedy to Stone’s knack for being dramatically hilarious.
It’s fitting that La La Land chews on themes of hope and dreams. In The Hollywood Reporter‘s latest roundtable, the young filmmaker even shocks Denzel Washington by admitting he grew up wanting to be a filmmaker, that it was a dream of his since childhood. Sure, that passion was alive and well throughout Whiplash — for the final scene alone — but it was more subdued. With La La Land, Chazelle sings his heart out through flashy colors, iconic songs, and razor-sharp wit. It’s a dream, alright.
A dream we’ll have again and again and again.
04. The Handmaiden
Few filmmakers have as much perverse, profound fun in their works as Chan-wook Park. From the deliciously droll Oldboy to the vampiric relationship drama of Thirst, and even the Hitchcockian experimentation of his English-language debut, Stoker, Park’s command of high camp is commendable. Even so, The Handmaiden is his first true masterpiece and deserves to be seen.
Tracking the darkly comic journey of a young thief hired to become the handmaiden of a young, naïve princess as part of an elaborate con in Japan-occupied Korea, Park finally manages to combine all the blood, guts, and sex he loves so much into a thrilling package that is as emotionally satisfying as it is viscerally (and visually) alluring.
Performance and identity are the central concerns for The Handmaiden, as the back-and-forth deceptions of the three main leads become a case study for the identity crisis Korea experienced during Japanese occupation: the use of different-colored subtitles to mark whether characters are speaking Japanese or Korean are an essential element for foreign film audiences to pick up on the linguistic jabs and tactics everyone uses to get ahead.
In the middle of it all, Park offers a ray of light in this cynical world of cultural appropriation and objectifying sexuality: the unlikely, complicated relationship between Kim Min-hee’s layered Lady Hideko and the scheming Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is one of the greatest, most earnest queer romances in film. Packed with gonzo thrills and some of the most intriguingly explicit sex scenes in recent memory, The Handmaiden is one of the greatest erotic thrillers ever made.
03. Manchester by the Sea
If there’s one misstep in Manchester by the Sea, it’s the severity of the central tragedy, which is so tremendously horrific that it risks shading the rest of the film in a scrim of storm clouds and tears. Yes, this story of Lee (Casey Affleck), a New England man who returns to the small town of his youth to care for his orphaned nephew (Lucas Hedges) is sad, but it never fetishes sadness, nor does it drown in it. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s restrained script and balanced tone is often bright, punctuated with abundant moments of humor, salty language, and a pervasive sense of youthful joy and discovery. This is a film about grief, yes, but it’s also a film about family, community, love, masculinity, youth, and culture.
Culture is key to Manchester, especially in its portrayal of masculinity and family. It’s disorienting at first, the way Lee and Patrick seem to bypass grief entirely, going about the practical steps of the situation as if it were a mere inconvenience. But what becomes clear is that these are men who still, however quietly, view emotion as a sign of weakness. Affleck and Hedges play their characters close to the vest, tightly coiled and in avoidance of anything or anyone who could make them spring. And that’s what makes the moments of catharsis (or the lack of them) so satisfying; the film’s emotional centerpiece finds Michelle Williams’ Randi, the ex-wife of Lee, grasping, clawing, and slamming her head against the brick wall that Lee’s built up around himself. It’s gorgeous for Williams’ searing passion as it is Affleck’s complete lack of it.
Manchester by the Sea’s greatest feat, though, is in subverting art’s traditional approach to grief, which paints it as something limiting and conquerable. Lonergan asserts, with toughness and compassion, that some tragedies can’t be compartmentalized and that some places, people, and memories are forever ruined by it. That doesn’t mean you’re broken, but it does make it harder to embrace the rays of sunlight piercing the clouds. Manchester is as much about the sun as it is the storm.
02. Green Room
When we asked Jeremy Saulnier to categorize his hyper-violent horror-thriller Green Room for us earlier this year, the young director basically shrugged. “It can be a horror film to some; it’s a punk thriller; it’s a crime movie,” he said. “For me to give my own movies labels, it’s a tough thing to do.”
Part of the reason it’s difficult to classify Green Room is that a film this fun, this scary, and this fucked-up hasn’t hit theaters in a very long time. In it, a touring hardcore punk band accepts a gig at a backwoods venue in Oregon, only to arrive and discover that it’s being run by a band of neo-nazis. When the band members stumble upon a freshly murdered body in the green room, they end up trapped there while the venue’s boss — a cold, calculating skinhead played by, of all people, Sir Patrick Stewart — devises a plan to dispose of them.
Green Room is undeniably a horror film in the sense that it plays on primal fears like claustrophobia and pits its protagonists against a murderous lunatic. It can also be extremely hard to watch, as Saulnier’s reliance on practical effects and dedication to grisly outcomes combine in ways that aren’t easy on the stomach. But there’s a level of pulp campiness to the proceedings that infuses Green Room with a dark, twisted, and highly necessary sense of humor (the film saves its best one-liner for the very end, after all the carnage has ensued).
Green Room also works on other, less fortunate levels. It’s a worthy swan song for the late actor Anton Yelchin, who died tragically within months of the film’s release. In a film loaded with big characters, Yelchin’s understated but heroic performance stands out and leaves us with a bittersweet taste of his promise as an actor. The film’s focus on neo-nazi brutality — Saulnier extensively researched the violence of American hate groups while writing the script — has also taken on a different tenor in the post-Trump, alt-right era of American politics. Green Room may well be an exploitation film, but that doesn’t mean it’s afraid to explore the more uncomfortable aspects of our present reality.
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Moonlight witnesses a man’s life in three phases. In the first, Chiron isn’t even Chiron. He doesn’t get his own name, most of the time. He’s been assigned the name of Little (Alex R. Hibbert), and it’s a subtle acknowledgment that in a masculine, drug-run section of Miami, Little doesn’t quite fit in. He’s quiet, gentler, more delicate. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), knows how the local boys look at him, but won’t acknowledge it aloud. Juan (Mahershala Ali), the local kingpin, takes Little under his wing, but has few answers when Little asks him “What’s a faggot?” and fewer still when Little wants to know how his mom gets her drugs.
Later, Little grows into Chiron (Ashton Sanders). He’s a teenager now and hasn’t answered any of the questions he had as a kid. Now the boys abuse him more brazenly, as it’s clear he isn’t the kind of man that those boys think they are. Now when he sees Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), his childhood crush, he can better articulate why exactly he used to get tongue-tied. Now the world has told him both what he might be and what it refuses to allow him every time he returns home to Paula a little more strung out than the day before.
More time passes, as it does, and Chiron has grown into Black (Trevante Rhodes), whose nickname the film draws from Kevin’s affectionate nickname for him when he was younger and life was simpler than adulthood ever can be. Black looks a lot like the men who surrounded him in his youth, and even his mother can see it, but Chiron still knows deep down that he isn’t them. He can blast “Classic Man” out of his souped-up car all he likes, but when Kevin (Andre Holland) calls him out of the blue to come get dinner and they lock eyes as men with their own lives, Chiron hasn’t aged a day away from that scared, uncertain kid hiding from bullies in a flophouse.
Barry Jenkins’ film is overwhelming in its artistry and successful under virtually any interpretation. As a meditation on age, it captures the ache of nostalgia, of knowing that a beautiful moment in your life is always passing by even as you live it. As a commentary on masculinity, Jenkins captures the everyday brutality of heteronormative violence in its many different forms, whether it’s from a violent peer or an abusive parent. As cinema, it’s an astounding visual achievement and one of the indisputably great dramas of this era of filmmaking.
But what makes Moonlight the best film of 2016 is not its prescience or its emotional weight, though it offers both in abundance. It’s the litany of unforgettable images that Jenkins captures, one after the next. A game of football in a field, seen as less of a game than a proving ground for young manhood. Two boys sharing a joint on a moonlit beach, living in the fantasy of a life they actually get to choose for themselves. An act of midday violence that functions as the exact moment in which a life is rotated off its axis forever. A devastated mother unable to even light her own cigarette under the pressure of grief and regret.
And last, after all of it, a young boy bathed in moonlight, gazing back over his shoulder, the whole world still ahead of him. As it always is and always should be.
02. Green Room
03. Manchester by the Sea
04. The Handmaiden
05. La La Land
08. Sing Street
10. O.J.: Made in America
12. American Honey
14. Kubo and the Two Strings
16. The Fits
17. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
18. The Lobster
19. The Eyes of My Mother
20. Toni Erdmann
21. The Witch
22. Hell or High Water
24. The Nice Guys
25. The Neon Demon