Monday, January 16, 2017

The Top 20 Films of 2016

Movies ended up taking more of a backseat than I would have liked this year.

I found I was unable to see--or simply missed--more films than I would have hoped. It was a very busy year for me, one where a lot of things began to speed up: I got married, I made it is a resolution to take up more hobbies, I made more of an effort to visit friends and family, dissertation research and writing kicked into high gear, and I was given more responsibilities and opportunities in my classrooms. I wouldn't have traded any of these things, but it means I did miss a lot of weekends at the cinema.

So there are a lot of holes here. Manchester by the Sea and Jackie are two whose absence is felt the strongest to me: knowing their subjects and reputations, I imagine they would be here if I had seen them. But this is a snapshot of how I feel on one Monday morning in January 2017. As always, it's part of the process of figuring out what I value, what the stake of cinema is moving forward as much as it is about looking just over the shoulder to take stock of what happened.

To the next year, and all its struggles. May movies continue to fill our lives with possibility.

20. Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick)

Widely detested by basically everyone I know, I still think Malick is up to something grand and mysterious in his increasingly abstract, wandering movies. 

19. Elle (dir. Paul Verhoeven)

Part comedy of manners, part revenge thriller, its tone vacillates wildly, its message about empowerment is murky at best, and it's nasty to the core.

18. The Handmaiden (dir. Park Chan Wook)

This is a bonkers movie of ever-shifting allegiances and scheming, erotic and sensual and also overblown and overstuffed and maybe the best movie Park has made to date. 

17. Hail, Caesar! (dirs. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)

In the Coens' latest, the movie studio is a giant process machine where politics and ideology are battlegrounds lurking in the corners behind extended musical numbers and failed attempts at correct pronunciation.

16. Rogue One (dir. Gareth Edwards)

Rogue One delivers on a strange promise, moving laterally through the Star Wars universe to expand its world-building and focus on the costs of those titular wars.

15. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

Neo Nazis holding a punk rock band hostage in their compound might be the most 2016-iest movie of 2016. 

14. Zootopia (dirs. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush)


Its politics are far from subtle, but there's something to be said for a movie aimed at young kids about, y'know, government corruption.

13. Cemetery of Splendor (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

I spent a surprisingly large amount of 2016 writing and researching about sleep, so this movie hit home in a weird way.

12. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)

If loving this melancholy, expressionist ode to missed opportunities and life's forking paths is wrong, I'd rather not be right. 

11. Love & Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)

Kate Beckinsale is superb, and Stillman has not lost his touch at getting the driest, barbiest quips out of his actors. An increasingly rare sort of comedy.

10. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman)

At seven and a half hours long, this is a novel-esque, sprawling documentary that uses the troubled and troubling life of O.J. Simpson to make an argument about nothing less than 20th century America. It's monumental.

9. Nocturnal Animals (dir. Tom Ford)

Nocturnal Animals is high formalization built on a contrast between beauty and brutality, high art and pulp fiction, teetering back and forth in a game of taste-making and sin-atoning.

8. HyperNormalisastion (dir. Adam Curtis)


Middle-Eastern geopolitics, the rise of computational information systems, the economics that drove Trump to power--it's all woven together in Adam Curtis's latest achievement, which tries maddeningly to capture the whole context of how we ended up here.

7. Sing Street (dir. John Carney) 

"Buoyant" is almost too gentle a word. John Carney's latest explodes with the passion and possibility of making music and being creative.

6. Hell or High Water (dir. David Mackenzie)

The land is the thing in Hell or High Water, which combines all the stakes of contemporary economic debt with all the brash classicism of cop-and-robbers shoot-outs.

5. American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold)

Arnold's rambling look at how poor kids make do in a system of seemingly endless exploitation and zero opportunity for mobility is some kind of tender epic.

4. Arrival (dir. Dennis Villeneuve)

A humanities professor saves the world in what might be one of the most Deleuzian movies ever made.

3. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

In the tradition of the best sci-fi and the best satire, The Lobster feels like such a beautifully absurd refraction of the systems we develop to make sure everyone finds love, and the social (not to mention political) pressures to conform to a certain way of being in the world. 

2. Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese)

My heart is always weak for long, epic historical dramas, and Scorsese's latest achieves many of its ambitions to be one of the defining films about the moral complexities of faith. Every piece of it feels so deeply considered, designed to patiently inform every other piece.

1. Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

At the end of the day, Moonlight isn't just the best film made in 2016, it is the most important film for 2016. It is a film that begs us to see other people for their complexity, to empathize with the choices they make, to see the good in others and the masks we adopt. It's a movie about a black gay man trying to figure out what it means to be those things; to be each of them individually and all of them at once. Moonlight is also patient; its triptych coming-of-age structure is hardly innovative, but the first two chapters are really just set up for that last third, where it turns out the gorgeous cinematography was just playing a long con before becoming emotionally overwhelming. We need this movie. We need more movies like this movie.

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