What's this, you say – no Top 10 list? That may be the standard way to take stock of the previous year's movies, for professional and amateur film writers alike, but I had trouble with that approach. I'm yet uncomfortable with making a declaration of the best movies of the year, but I can certainly single out favorites and others I strongly appreciate for various reasons, so I'm sticking with a unique formulation of six clear favorites + ten more great ones.
What separates these first six from the rest? Out of the more than 100 movies I watched from 2016, there were half a dozen I really responded to, on a gut level – these movies elicited joy, awe, horror and above all else, empathy. These six (in a few cases, surprisingly) seemed to stand in a class of their own, but I saw many other good films last year, and I offer ten more below. If you're curious to see my viewing list of 2016 movies, click here.
Here are my six favorite films of 2016. In no particular order:
I watched Sing Street with reluctance. Unlike most, it seems, I was resistant to John Carney's 2007 film Once, and on the basis of similarity, Carney's Sing Street – a sort-of musical about some Irish kids starting a band – seemed eminently skippable. How wrong I was. After hearing several movie podcasters gush over this movie repeatedly, I gave it a shot, and Sing Street put a smile on my face that barely let up for the entire film. It's Dublin in 1985, and an economic downturn forces 14-year-old Connor's parents to transfer him to a notoriously rough public school, where he starts a band (punnily named Sing Street) to impress an older girl, Raphina. As their parents' relationship frays toward divorce, Connor (talented newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) draws inspiration for Sing Street from his older brother Brendan (a fantastic Jack Reynor), who acts as a musical mentor and turns him on to the likes of Duran Duran, Hall & Oates and The Cure while instilling him with rock and roll values: be original. Look to the future. Take risks. The excellent soundtrack includes hits from the above bands and several others, and most importantly, Sing Street's original songs are genuinely catchy and memorable (I've had "Drive It Like You Stole It" in my head for months). Though very well-received, Sing Street was labeled as "slight" by some critics (have those people even seen Pitch Perfect?) – sure, Sing Street doesn't reinvent the coming-of-age drama, but I can't recall a more joyous version of that familiar arc, and beneath its grin-inducing charms I found much to be genuinely affecting. Apart from the obvious theme of art-as-coping-mechanism, Sing Street considers the way adolescents process influence by trying on a succession of personas, and the way a grim economic environment, institutional rot or family dynamics can work in similar ways to stifle the dreams of all but the most bull-headed. And Connor and Brendan are my favorite movie brothers in a great while – I've seen Sing Street three times and the room always gets a little dusty during their final scene together. Take it from a one-time Sing Street cynic, and someone generally ambivalent toward movie musicals: Sing Street is a blast.
Watching The Witch, I imagined myself peering through the lens of some cursed telescope at a creepy old woodcut, its scorched grooves animated into existence by some infernal force. The key to Robert Eggers' remarkable debut film, about a banished Puritan family coming undone at the hands of evil, is that it's an effective period drama first, and a horror film second. The Witch is rendered in painstaking period detail, from authentically-thatched cottage roofs to spoken language drawn from actual 17th-century documents. The resulting immediacy and atmosphere, along with tremendous performances all around – including Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson (both familiar from Game of Thrones), and Anya Taylor-Joy, in a revelatory debut – make The Witch's horror elements all the more intrusive and troubling. Beneath the Puritan trappings is a recognizably loving family, and while there does seem to be an actual witch (who does unspeakable things), even more unsettling is watching this family get torn apart at the seams by their own religious hysteria, justified or not. And, it must be mentioned, by Black Phillip, in the strongest goat performance of the year (seriously, this goat is fantastic). Kidding aside, The Witch is heartbreaking and horrifying, an instant classic whose imagery still haunts me a year later.
Keith Maitland's documentary Tower, about the 1966 massacre at the University of Texas in Austin, is a breakthrough achievement and, for me, one of the most affecting films of the year. A fusion of archival material, interviews and reenactments, Tower marginalizes the killer (for once) and lets the shooting's victims, bystanders and first responders tell their stories. Tower's most striking feature is its rotoscoped animation, but far from feeling like a gimmick or a distasteful exercise in style, the animation enhances immediacy and invites empathy in a way a traditional documentaries often fail to do. Tower is a harrowing but hopeful watch, its troubling backdrop of gunfire punctured by moments of grace and triumph. Here is my full review.
Timing matters, both within Arrival and without, with its release just after the 2016 election making the film accidentally relevant to anxieties of the Trump era. Several alien spacecraft appear around the world, hovering in place and opening an entryway every eighteen hours; a linguist (Amy Adams) and physicist (Jeremy Renner) must forge a path to communication before the world's political stage crumbles. Arrival is thoughtful science fiction in the vein of Kubrick and Tarkovsky, or perhaps Christopher Nolan with more focused ambitions and fewer explosions. Not to detract from the achievement of director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy and Sicario), whose command of tone and pacing makes Arrival a thing of absorbing, stark beauty – even the film's potentially head-scratching reveal is handled with great delicacy. But Arrival's technically brilliant execution wouldn't mean much without the moving and painful story at its core. As with all the best science fiction, Arrival uses an impossible or other-worldly premise as an entryway (both literally and metaphorically) to examine humanity from angles not permitted by familiar reality. And like 2015's The Martian, Arrival finds something noble and compelling in watching smart people solve a difficult problem. Unlike many movies involving science, Arrival doesn't blind the audience with impenetrable jargon and equations and use our bewilderment as an excuse to gloss over the details – we're actually invited to be a part of the process and appreciate things from the inside. You've probably never felt on the edge of your seat watching someone diagram a sentence, but seeing a linguist do more-or-less plausible work is one of Arrival's big pleasures. Arrival not only confirms Denis Villeneuve as the major talent his recent films have pointed toward; it makes his upcoming sequel Blade Runner 2049 seem like not an entirely terrible idea. High praise indeed.
Under the Shadow
Babak Anvari's excellent Under the Shadow takes a familiar horror movie setup – a parent and child, alone in a haunted space – and uses it to explore the anxieties faced by women in oppressive Islamic societies. As war encroaches upon 1980s Tehran, Iran, Shideh's husband Iraj is called for military service, leaving her to care for their daughter Dorsa. A bomb miraculously hits their apartment building without exploding, but something sinister may have come along for the ride. That something (possibly a djinn) seems to want Shideh to answer for her sins as a progressive woman in a strict Muslim society – a women who dares to drive a car, who dislikes wearing a headscarf and who shows a political spirit. Under the Shadow begins like an Iranian domestic drama in the vein of Asghar Farhadi (the Oscar-nominated director, now barred from attending this year's ceremony by the President's travel ban) but slowly drifts into effective low-budget horror territory. Apart from offering some legitimate frights, one scene in particular brilliantly demonstrates how, for some women, Under the Shadow's supernatural chills are merely a barely-heightened version of everyday reality. Here is a full review.
O.J.: Made In America
When I first heard of this project, I thought I needed an eight-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson like I needed eight holes in my head. But Ezra Edelman's film, produced for ESPN's 30 for 30 series, proved far more vital and absorbing than I would have predicted. There's controversy in some corners about whether O.J.: Made In America is a film, or episodic television, because although it was presented as one very long movie at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, most people consumed it as a five-part TV presentation. I'll defer to Seth Meyers, who I think addressed the issue best: "If you think you're watching a film, it's a film. No one's watching Dance Moms going, 'is this a movie?'" The Academy agrees, as O.J. is an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature. However you package it, O.J. is sweeping and operatic in scope, yet somehow as compulsively watchable as true crime series like Making a Murderer or The Jinx – all the more remarkable considering anyone over age thirty feels they've heard this story six times too many. But Ezra Edelman uses the extended length, and two decades of hindsight, to fully contextualize the O.J. Simpson trial in a way that smashes through its "reality TV origin story" patina – great care is taken to relate the complicated racial history of Los Angeles, including the fraught relationship between African Americans and the LAPD which eventually erupted in riots with the beating of Rodney King. Edelman doesn't speak to the man himself, but does secure incredible access to so many of the story's key players, including jurors from the trial, as well as District Attorney Marcia Clark, disgraced LAPD officer Mark Fuhrman and many others. Before this film, I didn't understand the intensity of Simpson's celebrity – I never saw him play football, so he was mostly the guy from the Naked Gun movies. But Edelman puts this and much more in unflinching perspective, rendering a novelistic portrait of race, identity and celebrity in America that is illuminating, troubling and cinematic. O.J.: Made In America is a magnificent achievement, an honest-to-goodness masterpiece and one of the best documentaries I can recall.
Also in no particular order, here are some other very worthy films that have stuck with me.
A twisty, strange, erotic con artist thriller from South Korea, The Handmaiden is one of the most ambitious, entertaining and visually lavish movies of the year. Whatever you do, don't watch this one with Mom and Dad.
The Red Turtle
The Red Turtle combines a Cast Away-style survival story with a sea myth, and without any dialogue or heavy-handed messaging manages to outshine the likes of Disney and Laika. The gorgeous 2D animation is a welcome alternative to the glossy, too-perfect 3D style we've come to expect. A lovely, soulful film.
Moonlight follows a black youth in Miami through three periods of his life in a lyrical, aching study of black masculinity and repressed sexuality. All three leads are excellent, in particular Trevante Rhodes, and Mahershala Ali deserves the Best Supporting Actor statue for his portrayal of drug dealer Juan.
Born to be blue
After the just-okay Miles Ahead, I was glad to find this much better jazz biopic about Chet Baker. Never a transcendent innovator like Miles Davis, Baker was nevertheless hugely talented, and this focuses on a few pivotal years of getting clean and attempting a comeback. Ethan Hawke is excellent as Baker, and he and Carmen Ejogo have undeniable chemistry.
I was surprised when Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, but Jackie has me thinking I should take another look. Portman is transfixing as Jacqueline Kennedy in this fractured, impressionistic portrait of both the First Lady's grief, and her underestimated role in shaping her husband's legacy.
The Love Witch
A self-aware throwback to kitschy and campy exploitation horror of the 1960s, The Love Witch follows a beautiful, aspiring young witch whose efforts to appease the patriarchy only result in death. A weird, psychedelic, pseudo-feminist Technicolor fairy tale unlike anything you've seen.
Love & Friendship
Even if period costume fare isn't really your thing, Love & Friendship is worth a look, if only for Tom Bennett's performance as the hilariously dimwitted Sir James Martin. You'd be forgiven for turning on the subtitles, or for not quite keeping up with Lady Vernon's serpentine scheming – but watch for Kate Beckinsale's beguiling charm and Tom Bennett's sublime idiocy.
In this slow-burning indie potboiler from Karyn Kusama, old friends reunite in the hills of Los Angeles for a dinner party which feels vaguely...off, and a few unfamiliar guests may or may not have sinister intentions. The Invitation oozes Lynchian dread and paranoia and builds to a chilling finale.
Along with Southside With You, we've already seen two films about Barack Obama's life before the presidency. Barry is the more directly insightful of the two, following Obama during his Columbia University days as he struggles to form an identity from both black and white roots. Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch impresses again as the object of Barry's affection and ambivalence.
This magical realist tale is set in a society where adults are required to have a romantic partner, and if they can't find someone, they're turned into an animal of their choosing. Disturbing and darkly hilarious, The Lobster takes real-world societal pressures to absurd extremes and watches as the chips fall where they may.
One of these is sure to win a ton of Academy Awards, and the other has already won over Star Wars geekdom in a huge way. I'm not quite on board in either case.
La La Land
I liked La La Land just fine – but for a film with 14 Oscar nominations, praise that mild will seem like fighting words to some. Admittedly, I'm not much of a movie musical guy, though I've seen my share of the big ones (Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story, several others) – enough to understand what La La Land's musical numbers are going for. I surely missed some sly references to less-famous musicals of the past (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is reportedly a big influence on director Damien Chazelle) and I did go into La La Land after many months of hearing and reading critical raves, which, despite my intention to remain objective, put me in a bit of an expectant, "let's see what's so freaking amazing about this movie" mode.
Disclaimers aside, I felt underwhelmed from the get-go. La La Land's much-lauded opening sequence didn't wow me as I'd hoped – lots of aspiring actors and musicians and writers, stuck in an L.A. traffic jam, musing about their big dreams and the challenges of show business. The scene is very impressive technically, but "big dreamers in Hollywood" is such a well-worn setup, and I hoped for something I hadn't seen before.
And I got that – sort of. La La Land may be touted as a revival of the classic Hollywood musical, but it's just as much an indie drama, and while this curious hybrid was surprising at times, the "Hollywood musical" label is misleading. La La Land simply doesn't have very many songs. Essentially, there are only five – "City of Stars" gets two versions, bringing the total number of musical song-and-dance numbers to just six (by comparison, Singin' in the Rain has fourteen; The Sound of Music, nineteen). And only two of these are full-fledged, razzle-dazzle productions in the classic Hollywood tradition – the rest are pared-down solo or duet numbers, some quite brief. There are a few wordless dance scenes (including a fantastic final sequence) and some real-world jazz performances, but overall, the classic Hollywood musical aspect felt disappointingly scarce. I'm sympathetic to budgetary restrictions – it's kind of a miracle this movie got made at all, and I think its mere existence has been thrilling enough for some critics – but the lavish opening minutes of La La Land cast a shadow over the rest of the film, with long stretches feeling fairly dull and lifeless. A few moments do recall the magic of Hollywood musicals past – one is a wordless floating sequence in Griffith Observatory; another is Emma Stone's "audition" show-stopper, sure to live on in musical theater students' dorm rooms for decades to come. But there was too much dead air – especially anything related to Gosling's struggle with the authenticity of jazz music (and I'm a jazz fan).
Though the musical numbers were too few and rarely amazing, they were still charming enough, but the story in-between is problematic. Without giving too much away, I appreciated that Stone and Gosling actually struggle for dreams that seem unlikely to come true; I thought I was seeing a modern, cynical counterpoint to the classic movie in which a starlet arrives in Hollywood only to, in an astronomically improbable manner, hit it big right away. But by the end I felt the thematic rug was pulled from under me, and La La Land's message lost much of its credibility. I was left with an ambitious hybrid of a movie, containing solid, occasionally-magical musical numbers and some well-acted dramatic scenes, but it never gelled into the visceral, emotional experience for me that it clearly did for many others. As for Gosling and Stone, they're quite good (if not really Oscar-worthy) – they may not be Broadway-caliber singers and dancers, but they more than pulled it off, and I thought their lack of polish was appropriate to the characters. I plan to revisit La La Land down the road and see what I might have missed, but for now, it's only my third-favorite movie with musical numbers of the year (after Sing Street and Hail, Caesar! ).
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I know what I'm getting myself into here, so let me state up front: Rogue One is a perfectly decent movie. As is always the case, my criticisms are not meant as bait, or meant to be combative toward the movie's fans. But let me explain why Gareth Edwards' Rogue One wasn't quite what I hoped for.
Maybe it's because I loved The Force Awakens so much. That movie's clear parallels to A New Hope didn't bother me, and it met its "reboot" responsibilities amazingly well: The Force Awakens both cleansed the bad taste of George Lucas' prequels, reminding us what we love about the originals, and it introduced compelling new characters who are well worth following for at least a few more movies. On its own merits I'd give The Force Awakens an enthusiastic "B+/A-," but given the impossible expectations J.J. Abrams had to contend with, it feels more like a miraculous "A."
Rogue One rates significantly lower for me. In terms of new characters, Rogue One is a standalone film meant to tell one particular story, so we'll probably not see its main players again, but even so, I hoped for more from these characters and performances. One of The Force Awakens' many pleasures was witnessing the birth of two new movie stars in Daisy Ridley and John Boyega; as well, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac were reliably excellent, and Harrison Ford found a spark he's been missing for decades. But Rogue One's main pairing of Felicity Jones and Diego Luna is merely okay. A few of their scenes do crackle (especially the emotional ending) but I spent much of the time wondering: are these two supposed to have chemistry ('cause they don't)? Am I supposed to root for them to become friends ('cause I kinda don't care)? As well, the side players were either bland (Jiang Wen), underused (Mads Mikkelsen and Riz Ahmed) or not as hilarious as advertised (Alan Tudyk's K-2SO). Only Ben Mendelsohn's malevolent, scheming bureaucrat, Orson Krennic, left much of an impression on me.
Of Darth Vader's two main appearances, the first doesn't quite work – the physicality of the actor playing Vader is so clearly different from David Prowse in the originals, and James Earl Jones' voice work can't help but lack some polish (he's now 86). Going by memory, it almost feels like you could cut that scene entirely without really disrupting the plot – the film would be better off and Vader's second appearance, already quite terrifying, would have even more impact. As for the digital resurrection of Peter Cushing? Not great. I'm genuinely surprised that was the best they could do in 2016, and was it necessary to have so much of him? I would have preferred they limit his presence in the screenplay to a handful of knowingly obscure shots, kept in shadow or shot from a rear angle – enough for us to say, "Hey, it's Grand Moff Tarkin!" but not so much that we also say, "...and he looks like a character from Uncharted 4."
Michael Giacchino's score effectively balances new material with nods to the past, but I walked away unable to remember a single bit of his new contributions; I do recall that the brass fanfare accompanying the "Rogue One" title card felt clunky and generic next to John Williams' vibrant themes. In contrast, Williams' score for The Force Awakens, while not nearly his best of the series, does at least provide a memorable gem in "Rey's Theme."
But most frustratingly, Rogue One carries an air of lost opportunities. The first act feels like a political thriller from the 1960s or 70s, feeding us exposition as we hop from locale to exotic locale; in place of Geneva and Algiers and Bora Bora, we have the planets Eadu, Jedha and Scarif. And once we're in Jedha City, a battle in the streets of that dusty desert outpost feels more like Black Hawk Down than Star Wars. These are exciting new dimensions to explore in a Star Wars context, but Rogue One only steps briefly down these corridors, returning often to the constraints of franchise expectations: Jyn Erso finds herself in a bind and Cassian rushes to her aid, only to step back and smirk as she proves she can take care of herself (sound familiar?). In another scene that felt strangely ill-defined, Cassian broods for minutes over an order to assassinate someone, when it's already been made crystal clear this is the wrong thing to do (and he's already been known to defy orders). But I guess we're supposed to think his growing fondness for Jyn Erso is what sways him? Who knows. We do know Rogue One went through significant rewrites and re-shoots, and moments like that one expose the film's patchwork nature.
Still, Rogue One boasts gorgeous production design and cinematography, and out of all the films, its spectacular space battle does the best job of balancing sophistication and coherence (the shield-busting part? Awesome). Not without its pleasures and still mandatory for fans, Rogue One feels like a minor entry in the franchise – yet sufficient to hold us over until Rian Johnson's hopefully-incredible The Last Jedi.