Our chief critic delivers his list of the 16 best movies of the year.
This was a great year at the movies.
I know, I know. “It’s a cartoon,” you’ll protest, “and it’s no Kubo!” To that I say that cartoons can be movies too, and while I have tremendous respect for the craft and talent behind Kubo and the Two Strings this Disney effort is the better film overall. It’s easily one of the year’s funniest films (for kids and adults), and its message of inclusion and racial harmony really shouldn’t be undersold. Those themes exist both on the surface and below, but at no time do they impede on the film’s story, humor, or pacing. I’m already excited for sequels exploring the many varied lands that make up this world and the crimes occurring therein.
A French drama about two teenage girls trying to break free of class and racial oppression doesn’t sound like a good time at the movies, but director/co-writer Houda Benyamina imbues her film with such energy and vitality that the moments of sadness continually blindside you. One of her secret weapons is lead actor Oulaya Amamra who shines as a young woman struggling to be something more than life has dictated for her. The imagined drive in a Ferrari is an all-time keeper.
14. La La Land
It takes a bit to get going (after an admittedly terrific opening sequence), but somewhere around the midway point of Damien Chazelle’s second feature pure magic begins to seep from the screen. (Perhaps not coincidentally it’s also where the musical interludes become less frequent.) His L.A. story focuses on two struggling artists, and it’s as the fantasy ends that the weight of their lives comes clear complete with beautiful and painful emotion. Imagination and wonder flow through the film, but it’s a sequence towards the end that visualizes the meeting of the two with memorable and mesmerizing results.
Sometimes you watch a movie and wonder how the hell it came to exist, but while that’s typically a thought regarding objectively bad films the same question arises here – for completely different reasons. What begins as an all-access look at a hopeful political career becomes an awkward and intrusive study in deception and delusion. Anthony Weiner’s political career ends more times than most begin, but the real drama and heartache rests with the woman who stood by his side. At times funny, shocking, and sad, this is a capsulized look at a fickle country offended by the wrong things and a man who’s oblivious to just how offensive he really is.
It’s not easy to tell a story people already know so well – Sully tanks it while Rogue One replaces surprise with action – but one way to succeed and stand apart is make the telling unique. Pablo Larraín’s exploration of Jackie Kennedy’s grief in the days after her husband’s assassination does just that through an atypical style and a stunning performance by Natalie Portman. She takes on the affectations of Jackie’s voice and mannerisms, but it’s her embodiment of loss that anchors the film’s more experimental look (and Mica Levi’s oddly mesmerizing score) with raw humanity.
There are few images in the public consciousness as rife with unease and danger as an adult man in the company of a young girl of no relation. The imagination descends immediately to the salacious marking him as a criminal aggressor and the child as victim – but does the appearance of impropriety guarantee a preordained outcome? Ross Partridge’s film is a buddy picture, a road picture, and a tale of friendship, but it’s one where the buddies exist in an increasingly uncomfortable dynamic. The conflict that arises – we can’t support this pairing, but they seem to work so damn well together – infuses the drama with an uncertainty that speaks to the best and worst of humanity. We want what’s best for these two even if we’re not sure they themselves know exactly what that is.
10. Toni Erdmann
Family dysfunction is a longtime staple in cinema, but no film this year captured it with such humor, warmth, and wisdom as Maren Ade’s third feature. Even at 162 minutes our time with Ines and her oddball father feels far too short as their journey of discovery becomes one we don’t want to see end. There’s an honesty here – yes, even with subtitles – about the way we see ourselves through our loved ones’ eyes and in turn how we view ourselves, but if that’s not enough of a draw the film also delivers at least one of the year’s biggest laughs.
9. Swiss Army Man
Is it silly including a “farting corpse” movie in a list of the year’s best? Maybe, but that’s part of the appeal of the Daniels’ first feature – it tells a deep story of depression and hurt but does so with humor, imagination, and an at times immature sense of wonder. It’s easily the year’s most inventive and creative film too as it incorporates all manner of visual effects to immerse viewers in the sad mire of one man’s mental state.
I’ve never loved or even really, really liked a Jim Jarmusch film before. That changed with his latest, a beautiful ode to the simple ups and downs of life, and yes I know that sounds like the most trite description you could imagine. Adam Driver finds a beautiful and sweetly humorous rhythm here as a man going through life with an increasing appreciation for the poetry of it all – from his observations around town, to the conversations he overhears, to the actual poetry he writes for himself. There’s a sadness here, one he accepts for the joy it brings elsewhere, and all of it combines to form a rare, all-encompassing serenity.
7. The Fits
Anna Rose Holmer’s feature debut is a beautiful, hauntingly precarious coming of age film that uses mystery and an at times dream-like atmosphere to create a mesmerizing tale. It’s a short film clocking in at just under eighty minutes, but it manages to be as much character study as it is coming of age story. Woven between those two, binding them together, is an important and necessary nod to young women everywhere.
6. The Lobster
Not all great films are for everyone, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest is as perfect an example of that as any. His pitch-black sensibility is paired with a beautifully satirical commentary on modern relationships and societal pressures, and Colin Farrell has never been better. Add supporting turns from John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux, and Rachel Weisz, and the result is a sci-fi parable that would make James Morrow proud in its melding of cynicism and humanity. It may not quite be Valentine’s Day material, but it’s definitely one of the most unique romances to tickle, caress, and flay your heart in some time.
5. Manchester By the Sea
Grief comes in many forms, and sometimes, against our better judgement, it comes with a Boston accent. Kenneth Lonergan’s multi-faceted look at a family in turmoil explores themes of loss and guilt through complex characters, heartbreaking performances, and a surprising amount of humor. The film doles out the devastating truths affecting these characters, but rather than frame it as a mystery we want solved the answers become a reality we’d prefer to avoid. Just be sure to hydrate before watching.
4. Green Room
The second chapter in Jeremy Saulnier’s Three Colors trilogy redefines intensity when it comes to onscreen action, tension, and terror. A simple siege film in theory, he crafts the story around incredibly likable protagonists facing off against a frighteningly believable enemy, and the result is a fist-clenching, knuckle-busting experience. A strong sense of humor helps to temporarily relieve the tension, but the high is nonstop through to an immensely satisfying conclusion.
Too often big sci-fi films are content to deliver spectacle in place of depth, and while pure entertainment is just as important and necessary sometimes it’s a rare joy to find a film that appeals equally to our desires for intellectual awe and whiz-bang wonder. More alien intervention than invasion, Denis Villeneuve’s latest is an exploration of language and communication – both a how-to and a treatise on its importance – that takes an early hold of both your heart and mind. It’s only when the end credits appear that you realize just how tight of a grip it’s had on both.
2. The Handmaiden
The setup is simple. The outcome is anything but. Park Chan-wook’s latest is a relentlessly gorgeous film with every frame offering beauty of some kind or other with its cinematography, story turns, and performances. Part twisty and kinky love story, part searing dismissal of the male gaze, this is a mesmerizing love story in the guise of a period thriller. There’s no more seductive film this year, and I mean that in every configuration of the word possible.
A boy becomes a man before our eyes, but this is no lazy-day Texas drama – this is life. Barry Jenkins and his cast and crew accomplish something important here, and while the specifics of the story – a black, gay main character beaten down by the life that’s been handed him – might seem foreign to some the themes at play here are universal. There’s a harsh reality at play here, but it’s presented with an awareness of the humanity hiding beneath the rage, tears, and fear, and a beauty in its visuals and performances. This is a necessary movie in 2016, and a timeless one too.