Boy, 2016 was swell, huh? I know I spent all year skipping merrily through the golden fields, having a lollipop while the sound of laughter tinkled through the heavens. Just an all-around pleasant fucking year. Mmm mmm.
So, yeah. But there were a lot of good movies! I know a lot of you out there don't ever want to hear about probability statistics again, but the law of averages holds that at the rate they're released, assuming an at least partially artistic motivation for the majority of them, a good 20-30 movies are going to be pretty good in a given year, give or take 10 or so on the high end. That was the biggest surprise for me when I started blogging about movies: more of them are good than I had thought, which was great news, because I love movies.
In that spirit, I come today to celebrate, not to tear down. I don't do worst-of lists, because they just piss me off, and I don't do “overrated” lists because I may be an asshole but I'm not a fucking asshole. Basically, if I don't mention it here, I didn't think it was good, and do remember that telling someone they “forgot” something on a list is the equivalent of shitting in their shoe. With that said, here are my notable/favorite movies of 2016:
“I liked it, but let's not get carried away”:
“You liked it more than I did, and that's fine”:
La La Land
Everybody Wants Some!!
Captain America: Civil War
“I didn't see it because I live too far from movie theaters, let alone press screenings”:
The Edge of Seventeen
Too many foreign pictures to count (though SRK's Fan and Aamir's Dangal stung the worst personally)
Morris From America
SPL 2 (Kill Zone 2)
Fire At Sea
My Golden Days
Henry Gamble's Birthday Party
Kate Plays Christine
The First Monday In May
Knight of Cups
To be clear, I greatly enjoyed all of these wildly divergent movies. (As a side note: Shailene Woodley should have done Wildly Divergent instead of Allegiant, Insurgent, and Detergent. This is why I should be an agent.) I highly recommend all of them.
And now . . . numbers 25-11 (note, once we get to around 18 or so every single movie to the end of the list could just as easily be favorite of the year):
25. Sing Street
One horrendous joke, intending to mock racism, but that ends up clanging so bad it's almost sort of racist, is the only thing marring this otherwise delightful story of a dorky kid in 80s Dublin who forms a band to impress a girl and, well, succeeds. One note of warning: you're either going to buy this or you're not, and if Sing Street doesn't do it for you, it's really not going to do it for you. I bought it: the tunes are great, the kids are fabulous, and finally, finally, I liked a John Carney picture. Our long national nightmare is over. That one, anyway.
24. The Invitation
My new favorite subgenre, after Coherence the other year (you know what, scratch that, this goes back to The Exterminating Angel), is “a bunch of well-to-do people get together for a dinner party only a bunch of weird fucking shit happens,” only this is a much slower burn than the other two titles mentioned, to the point where even bringing them up is misleading. If you haven't seen this yet, free up a couple hours, meditate to clear your mind, and go in totally tabula rasa. It's really quite something.
23. The Witch (or, if you want people on Twitter to climb up your ass, The VVitch)
I was totally in the tank for this, for two reasons. One is that my ancestors were the fuckup family on the Mayflower that the stern, religious types on the boat thought were godless lumpen shitheads (talk about genetic determinism, damn), leading to their having to move out into the sticks, although as opposed to The Witch where it was for heresy, in real life it was because my ancestor killed a guy and was hanged and his remaining family decided to put some space between themselves and Plymouth. The second reason is that seemingly without fail, if horror nerds have a huge debate about whether something is really a horror movie, I end up cluelessly wandering in and really liking it six months later. It's gorgeously, sensuously shot—you can taste the fog—and the “wouldst thou like to live deliciously” moment is one of the best things in movies, and it's an incredibly versatile suggestion, useful in daily life.
22. The Fits
Every frame of this picture surges with life. Anna Rose Holmer's debut is the proverbial good microbudget Sundance movie, at once simple and profound, more impact in 70 minutes than damn near every other picture has at twice that length (not to mention hundreds of millions more for budget). We're officially at the part of the list where I'm getting an ulcer because every movie might be fifteen spots too low. More importantly, though, seek this movie out. Support young women filmmakers.
21. Hail, Caesar!
The Coens have been spending their entire career catering to the most whimsical and eccentric neighborhoods of my id, and continue enthusiastically here, doing one of the greatest things an artist can do, which is to put Channing Tatum in a musical. The whole thing isn't Channing Tatum in a musical—there's a bit where George Clooney kicks it with an impeccably curated group of leftist archetypes that had me dying, and that Alden Ehrenreich kid is the truth, and Brolin is still on his seemingly permanent roll—but I can't emphasize enough that putting Channing Tatum in a musical is a great and important thing, and if you put Channing Tatum in a musical, you are a good person who does good deeds and improves the world. So much for the Coens being misanthropes.
20. De Palma
Literally just Brian De Palma sitting around talking about his movies for two hours, but yo, Brian De Palma sitting around talking about his movies for two hours. As the man himself says approximately 8276 times in the movie, “Holy mackerel!”
There's some appallingly on-the-nose dialogue, and I'm not entirely sold on Portman's performance (though I still think she's picking up a second Oscar this year, Emma Stone notwithstanding), but all of the complimentary stuff I said in my article about this holds.
A divisive one—boy, the people who hate this movie fucking hate it—but reader, I was moved. It's almost like a domestic drama and a horror movie doing a lot of drugs together and having a “whoa, man, our personalities are merging” experience, complete with the comedown. It's the kind of debut feature where you (okay, me) really want to see what the director does next but also really want him to do something radically different.
17. The Nice Guys
Not even going to pretend like I can be impartial about Shane Black. I'm not. In the slightest. That being said, I kind of wished, as I did with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, that he'd collaborated with another director, but this is a minor quibble. I fucking loved this silly, shaggy, rude-ass movie. Best Gosling performance I've seen yet, and it's the best Crowe's been in a minute, though the kid performances are the best bit (particularly Angourie Rice as Gosling's daughter). “At least you're drinking again.”
16. No Home Movie
Chantal Akerman's last film, and it will make you feel her loss, intensely.
Might make an interesting (and draining) double feature with #16, and the official “fuck, this might be 15 spots too low” picture on this list. Assembled by veteran documentary cinematographer Kristen Johnson from outtakes spanning her whole career, some astonishing moments and images ensue, and what emerges is a singular kind of memoir, a true original. (This could just as easily have been my #1 in a different year, or even a different mood. If you asked me why it's #15 instead, all I'd be able to say is something defensive about ranked lists being bullshit.)
14. The Shallows
As Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a shark.” (Why is this ahead of Cameraperson? Look, ranked lists are bullshit.)
13. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier is really good at brooding, menacing, violent slow burns with colors in the title. This was not at all what I was expecting, and has one of the best endings I've seen in a while.
12. Hell or High Water
The proverbial good Texas neo-noir with a lot of unsubtle “in this economy?” moments (by the way, “unsubtle” is not a knock coming from me), though it would be one of the best movies of the year solely for how hot Chris Pine is in it. It's absurd. Like, to the point of inducing anger. I've seen this movie compared a lot to Killing Them Softly, but this is way better. This one has Chris Pine.
11. Certain Women
My first Kelly Reichardt, and damn sure won't be my last. Three chapters, interconnected tangentially, about certain women (hey!) in Montana, each fascinating in their various ways. It's a great reminder that Laura Dern rules, that Kristen Stewart makes people lose their goddamn minds (and is great), and that Michelle Williams can overcome even thinly written, annoying roles. Lily Gladstone, though, walks away with the movie, or, more aptly, slowly canters away on her horse with the movie. The kind of picture that reinforces the fact that “slow” and “quiet” are positive traits in the right hands.
By the way, we're well-ensconced in “this movie easily could have been #1 if I spent another few weeks overthinking the rankings” territory. Just in time for . . . THE TOP TEN.
10. Manchester by the Sea
This is going to sound weird, and negative, and any extrapolation of the following as a critique of the movie is undertaken without the sanction of the author, but the shot that stuck out the most for me in MbtS is one where, after writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has a brief encounter with leading man Casey “C-Fleck” Affleck where they yell at each other in Noath Shoah accents, there's this brief shot that goes nowhere and is not connected to the preceding scene or anything in the movie in any way, be it textual or geographical, of Lonergan walking up the street. Grab a drink and a snack and get comfortable, because I have a take: this non sequitur shot serves, in a way, as a signature. I am this painting. It is me. Anyway, the rest of the movie is great, and C-Fleck really is spectacular in it. (Also, like #11, an entry in the “Michelle Williams can do no wrong” sub-genre.)
Jim Jarmusch's least cool movie. And it may be his best. Not a drop of meanness in the whole thing, which is blessedly out of step with real life.
8. The Love Witch
I've been banging the drums for this on awards ballots and such, and wrote an appreciating of Samantha Robinson's terrific lead performance here. This fucking movie is so fucking good. Essential for anyone into 70s Euro-horror-softcore, which if you're not you should be, that's the business right there. Anna Biller's on to something, and her name's gone right on my must-see auteurs list, in ink.
7. Toni Erdmann
The most frequent knock on this I've heard is that it's too long, but it needs to be long, and the build enabled by its considerable length allows it to reach quite spectacular heights by the end. I have no idea how to describe Peter Simonischek's performance in this, because “naturalistic Bouffon” sounds like gibberish to me, except that's all I got. Sandra Hüller sings a version of Whitney's “The Greatest Love of All” at one point that stopped my heart beating, not out of technical skill but out of sheer commitment, which by another apparent contradiction, is a function of the technical mastery of her acting. This is another one that's maybe 15 slots too low, and there aren't even 15 slots above it. Ranked lists are bullshit.
Saying that Ava DuVernay makes pop movies isn't a backhanded compliment, because her working within pop aesthetic modes broadens the reach of her work, and what she has to say is vital. So, 13th is presented in the form of a standard talking-head documentary, but whatever conservatism of form it may be saddled with is outweighed in importance by the fact that the United States never, in any practical sense, fully enforced the 13th Amendment (memory jog: that's the one repealing slavery), and the implications of that failure are devastating. The film simply lays out existing facts, but does so with urgent clarity, and the fact that it exists improves the chances that people unaware of those facts will learn them.
5. I Am Not Your Negro
James Baldwin was one of the greatest American writers, and one of the greatest Americans. My words are inadequate to assess this movie. It's coming to theaters in February, mark your calendars.
4. Love & Friendship
It had my attention at “Whit Stillman adapts Jane Austen.” It had my interest at “Kate Beckinsale turns in an iconic movie star performance.” It had my love with Tom Bennett, though. That fucking guy is light. Every frame of this movie is perfect and I adore it.
I've only seen about three negative takes on this—and this is out of hundreds, since I spend way too much goddamn time on Twitter—and none of them are worth a shit. Moonlight is the 2016 movie people are going to be talking about twenty years from now (assuming no World War III and/or equivalent Game Over scenario), and that's because it's an exquisitely rendered piece of cinematic art. There are minor issues, mostly in the writing, that bumped it down to #3 for me, but note “for me.” And also remember anything in the top 15-18 this year could have been my #1. Ranked lists are bullshit.
Paul Verhoeven is one of the greatest masters the cinema has ever known. Paul Verhoeven is fucking batshit. These two statements are symbiotic. “VY DUNT VE DO A FEELM VITH ISABAIL HUPAIR VERE A GUY RAPES HER AND DEN SHE FOCKEENK RUINS HIS LIFE, ZAT SOUNTS LIKE A GOOT FILM.” Well, sure, Paul. In your hands. And Isabelle Huppert's. It's only called Elle because “Trigger Warning: The Motion Picture” took up too much space on the poster. But goddamn it's great.
1 .The Handmaiden
Clearly I was in a mood in 2016. This shit is like a hentai rewrite of The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist directed by James Ivory, which automatically makes it the b(owes)est movie of any given year, but especially this one. I wrote this about Park Chan-wook's last jawn, Stoker, a couple years ago:
“. . . the great thing about cinema is you can do it all kinds of ways, and the way Park Chan-wook directs Stoker fucking rules. The key is that it's not excess for the sake of excess, there's a steady, assured directorial hand perceptible for every frame of this picture. Park's mastery of tone is complete, never letting the more lurid aspects sink the ship or the slower bits dissipate any of the holy-shit intensity. Richard Pryor had a bit on one of his albums in the 70s where he was talking about a girl who was 'so fine, I'd suck her daddy's dick.' Well, that's how I feel about Stoker.”
The same, and more so, goes for The Handmaiden. It's an experience. Parts of it feel deliberately infuriating, discomforting, and outright annoying, but I would not have it any other way. It's glorious, and for the purely subjective reason that it was the one movie this year whose ending made me stand up and cheer (I was at home, calm down) it's my #1 for 2016.
Happy New Year! Keep beauty in your eye and joy in your heart. Resist tyranny. Shanti shanti shanti.