The Best Films of 2016

I took it easier this year. I didn’t watch as many films nor did I really want to. I read more, exercised more, and traveled a bit. I stepped outside of my comfort zone on at least two separate occasions, which for most might not seem like a big deal, but for me it was like a glass ceiling crashing down. Life can be a series of lateral moves, but I’ll celebrate those ever-fleeting upward ones every chance I get.

But for many, 2016 represented a decline in our dignity and empathy. They’re not wrong. Some of the films outlined in my top 25 spoke, prophetically, to this decline. Others looked at the tail end of the Obama years with a glimmer of hope.

Sometimes you just have to hold onto the good.

Do Not Resist
(Craig Atkinson)

This concise and informative documentary on the increased militarization of domestic law enforcement is the first film from director Craig Atkinson and it shows, baring the kind of filmmaking errs that mar so many fledgling efforts. But what Do Not Resist may lack in formal aptitude it makes up for in its purely visceral approach and stunning raw footage, which includes some startling images from the Ferguson, Missouri riots of 2014. The film is not so much concerned with the origins of racial anxiety but rather its byproduct, wherein law enforcement will utilize its increasingly evasive tools to predict civil unrest and crime. In one of the more chilling passages, criminologists explain how they have composed rap sheets for you well before you’re conceived; Robert K. Merton’s self-fulfilling prophecy as a dark reality.  

(Antonio Campos)

My preferred Christine Chubbuck film isn’t so much concerned with the event that catapulted her into the cultural stratosphere, but rather the anhedonia that plagued her. Antonio Campos’ Christine is not so much about the reporter’s on-air suicide but rather about the modes in which people cope with depression and how those coping methods differ from person to person. In Campos’ meticulous framing, we’re offered a very clear and poignant portrait of the ways people confront disappointment and failure; no other film in recent memory presents depression with this much wisdom and truth.

The Edge of Seventeen
(Kelly Fremon Craig)

Certainly among the most beguiling films of the year, Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen takes the convention of its genre and doesn’t so much upend them as she does update them. Much like Ghost World or The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the film excels at pointing out the inherent contradictions that confront young women and their sexuality, as they’re so often tasked with the impossible with regards to what their quote unquote sexual responsibilities are. Anchored by a terrific lead performance from Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen ranks among the best adolescent coming-of-age narratives in recent years.

Cemetery of Splendor
(Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

I encountered Apichatpong Weerasethakul early in my cinephilia, watching his Palme d’Or winning Uncle Boonme at a packed NYC screening. I never did revisit him; I found the film to be too impenetrable, which is more a reflection of me being ill equipped to handle such a culturally specific work. But I found Cemetery of Splendor, a film I watched out of duty and less out of pleasure, to be infinitely more approachable. That may come across as a backhanded complement, but the film, while in keeping with its cultural specificity, displays a kind of emotional honesty that I was surprised to find from Weerasethakul. Cemetery of Splendor serves as an ideal gateway into the mind of Weerasethakul, a gorgeous, somberly humorous exercise that confronts personal and historical demons. It’s exciting to find something thrilling in a director I had initially written off, if only to plunge into the deep waters of Weerasethakul’s pool.

Sunset Song
(Terence Davies)

A gorgeous soliloquy that unites its thematic concerns with its sumptuous visual design, Terence Davies’ Sunset Song marked a return to form for a director that I more or less had written off. But his one-two punch proves that the auteur is by no means done, entering a quote unquote late period that’s so far characterized by the presence of strong women and a candid visceral quality  Davies may not be as oblique as he was in the late 80s and early 90s, but this more emotionally naked and direct manner of filmmaking remains of the highest order.

A Quiet Passion
(Terence Davies)

It’s useful to think about A Quiet Passion as the complimentary ying to Sunset Song’s yang. The two may not directly inform each other, but they do bare some striking similarities: they’re both centered on strong female characters that find themselves isolated within a rigid class structure, constricted by their familial ties. But whereas Sunset Song examines its central plight through the physical, A Quiet Passion is much more insular, confined to expressing itself through art and the written word. Centered on a brilliant lead performance by Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion ranks among Davies’ most stirring work, right there along with The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives

Hail, Caesar!
(Joel and Ethan Coen)

I’m reminded of a line from Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, where Hangman John Ruth (Kurt Russell) advises Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) that being bounty hunters, as it were, was not supposed to be easy. Major Marquis Warren’s blunt reply addresses the other side of that proposal: “Nobody said it's supposed to be that hard, either”. You’ll find a character combating with that logic in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar!, where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) functions as the fulcrum to a series of PR catastrophes, attending to the concerns of Capitol Pictures as if handling God’s work. Work, of the capital W variety, often gives people purpose and for Mannix that purpose is questioned when a lucrative new offer is presented to him. For a film about attempting to ascribe meaning to life, Hail, Caesar! produces skull-clutching existential spasms. Yet I confess that some of the film’s more comedic elements don’t quite register – I get more humor out of the Coens within a context of suffering rather than an overtly comic one, e.g. A Serious Man > The Big Lebowski. That said, despite how dick-ish it might sound, even minor Coens is worthy of recommendation.

After the Storm
(Hirokazu Kore-eda)

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There’s something to be said about giving up grand ambitions for living the most ordinary of lives, or so Hirokazu Kore-eda will have you believe. His films, all graceful, humanistic portraits of men, women, and children reconciling expectations with reality, display a cumulative wisdom that escapes most contemporary filmmakers’ worldviews. After the Storm, Kore-eda’s latest, is his most accomplished work yet, possessing the sort of weary-eyed wisdom into the fears and anxieties that plague dreamers who have failed to blossom from the promise of their youth.

Little Sister
(Zach Clark)

Zack Clark’s funny and politically astute Little Sister never did find the audience it should have. Set during the glory months of hope leading to Barack Obama’s initial presidential bid, the film details America’s peculiar relationship with the Iraq War, contemplated over a cocktail of liberal and conservative ideals with a Christian values chaser. It could have been a clumsy mess but Clark finds the perfect lead to realize his vision, as newcomer Addison Timlin gives one of the best performances of the year.

(Barry Jenkins)

Never given the chance to breathe outside of its “will it be an Oscar contender” status, one can let out a sigh of a relief that Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight disengages from what you’d typically expect out of a perennial awards film. Beyond its predominantly black cast and gay subject matter, Moonlight’s boldest achievement is its capacity to feel like an intrinsically personal work.  Defined by the ephemeral gestures that Jenkins is miraculously able to capture, Moonlight’s significance only grows as you step away from it, where its plea for humanism comes across as increasingly vital. 

Everybody Wants Some!!
(Richard Linklater)

As with much of Linklater’s oeuvre, the lingering concern remains that of time. Whereas these concerns were much more overtly realized in Boyhood and the Before trilogy, Everybody Wants Some!! is so relaxed and unconcerned with anything beyond its characters’ next stimuli that it may come across as slight. That’s simply not the case. Casual asides and rejoinders expose a film that is so acutely aware of the passages of youth, of existing in the here and now, along with a keen awareness of what it means to live in the there and then. As Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) is exposed for falsely enrolling in college during the team’s first practice, we are casually reminded of what brought him and all these baseball players together in the first place: their perceived athletic talents. Talent is its own exception and while the college experience is one to be treasured, your failure to capitalize will see it recede into your periphery. Not to suggest that the film is some kind of bummer, but rather to say that like with many of Linklater’s studies on time and its passing, the results are often quite bittersweet.

(Cristi Puiu)

Afford your attention to Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, concentrate on its minute details, and embrace its moment-to-moment accesses of the banal and boring, and the film will reveal itself to you as something genuinely enjoyable. I know, it’s not a convincing sell, especially when the alternative is not concentrating intently on a three-hour Romanian film. One’s appreciation for Sieranevada will largely have to do with your temperament and ability to negotiate with Puiu’s endurance test. As someone who was reticent to accept Puiu’s tempo, I was quickly won over by his film’s formal proficiency, the realism of its performances, and humor.

The Lobster
(Yorgos Lanthimos)

Unlike Lanthimos’ breakthrough film, Dogtooth, The Lobster is most notable for bridging the passage between passive and involved viewing. Both films are fundamentally shocking in their examinations of human behavior, but The Lobster’s satirical deconstruction of the pangs of relationships and the delusions we subsist on in order to make sense of the world register as vitally True. In Lanthimos’ candid approach, where every character speaks in a blunt and forceful manner, there’s a genuine sense that you’re peering into a kind of warped mental experience had by someone struggling to make sense of relationships and a culture that complicates them. It’s daring and unspools the anxieties and hesitations of meeting someone better than any other film I can recall.

(Pedro Almodóvar)

Among the year’s most underrated films, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta is as formally rigorous and visually sumptuous as any of the Spanish filmmaker’s previous films. It’s a keenly realized puzzle - as is much of Almodóvar’s finest films - a melodrama told through letters and filtered through a lens of memory. Past informs present, and as such, the film is a consistently rewarding exercise, one that prizes its audience’s attention to detail. Baring the traits of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Almodóvar continues a legacy of filmmaking that’s more or less considered out of fashion. Yet in the absence of gritty realism, he exposes more truth about human behavior and the toll of grief than even I care to admit.  Don’t be fooled: Julieta is upper-tier Almodóvar.

The Witch
(Robert Eggers)

Among the most accomplished debut features of the year, Robert Eggers’ The Witch remained a constant favorite of mine throughout the year. From the assured brilliance of Eggers’ mise-en-scene to the painstaking detail associated with replicating 1600s-New England English, the film is equal parts persuasive as it is horrifying. Sharing the qualities of all good horror films, its subtext speaks to broader and unfortunate realities that plague femininity then and now, while also introducing a catalogue of new mythologies and ethos to its genre. The devil is in the details, Eggers would argue, giving him a high bar to clear on his next outing.  

Certain Women
(Kelly Reichardt)

Certainly one of the most poignantly serene films of 2016, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is perhaps best enjoyed when stored deep in the limbic system, waiting to be called upon. For as much as I admire the formal proficiency of Reichardt’s work, it’s the tiny, ephemeral moments that my memory so often conjures on a daily basis. Whether it be Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart on horseback or Laura Dern coddling a distraught client, Certain Women has so many touching, individual moments of personal defeat and ecstasy that most filmmakers so desperately try to capture. For Reichardt, there’s an effortless grace to how she captures those moments – as it should be.

(Kirsten Johnson)

In this catalogue of outtakes and home video footage, cinematographer-turned-director Kirsten Johnson composes on a rich manifesto on the integrity of professionalism. The film is culled from decades of Johnson’s work, meticulously woven to inquire on the nature of filmmaker and subject. With the deliberate absence of intention striped from the film’s design, we’re left to muse on what each individual scene means and how it relates to a larger and more abstract concept of truth and reality. There’s not a film this year that captures, in its most purest form, the range of emotions that Cameraperson conveys: from shame to fear, from anger to joy, all within the expanses of its separate but unified vignettes.

Manchester by the Sea
(Kenneth Lonergan)

While I may prefer Kenneth Lonergan’s earlier meditation on grief (Margaret), Manchester by the Sea nevertheless promotes the discussion that Lonergan is indeed among our chief American dramatists. And whereas Margaret so often read like an examination of post 9/11 anxieties, there’s no denying that Manchester speaks directly to the times we live in now; 2016 has been a year of mourning and loss, and Manchester by the Sea solemnly sifts through the ashes of what remains and tries, perhaps unsuccessfully, to put together the pieces.  

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

Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America is a testament to the value of a thoroughly researched subject; no other documentary this year so clearly defined its stakes and ambitions, and served to articulate its argument with as much logical passion as Edelman’s work. It starts by taking the time to research the social and political climate of its subject and piecing together a puzzle of racial tension that seemed to reach its boiling point during the O.J. Simpson trail. The depths of its research render all other documentaries of its ilk in the dust (most specifically, Ava DuVernay’s 13th), and serves as a monument of documentary filmmaking. 

Right Now, Wrong Then
(Hong Sang-soo)

I cast my entertainment dollar not for regurgitated lallations or shoddy special effects. I afford a film my two most prized commodities- my time and $$$ - and hope that it serves me with something worthwhile. The films of Hong Sang-soo have proven a worthy investment to this design, with every passing film displaying a wealth of wisdom that surpasses that of most any of his contemporaries. He reaches a new apex with Right Now, Wrong Then, a deceptively simple but profoundly clever narrative that folds into itself. The first story follows an aggressive filmmaker trying to court a young woman, while the second repeats the plot with minor but nevertheless cumulatively significant, alterations that reshape the narrative entirely. The sagacity of Hong’s filmmaking should not be taken for granted; beneath the gentle and unfussy sophistication of his films are depths of wisdom that pay you back tenfold. 

(Kleber Mendonça Filho)

Aquarius, the second film from Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho is every bit as socially conscious as his previous Neighboring Sounds. The two confront the bitter relationship between a developing world economy and the rich cultural history of its inhabitants. But with Aquarius, Mendonça Filho posits his concerns of globalization and cultural genocide through the lens of a retired music critic portrayed by Sonia Braga. It’s the performance of the century, embodying, with such distinguished, clear-eyed clarity, the anxieties that comes with age while simultaneously refusing to give in to the larger global forces that impede on your legacy. Some of it may be for naught, but as Aquarius implores you: it’s something worth fighting for.

American Honey
(Andrea Arnold)

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is your ideal post-election cocktail, a film that that confronts its audience with the realities of the world outside their bubble. It busts myths about the American experience, particularly for the young and impoverished, that so few films rarely endeavor to do. And it takes Arnold’s outsider vision to capture such ephemeral concerns with such uncompromising empathy. There’s not a more important film to be released this year that bridges the divide between liberal idealisms and conservative realities quite like Arnold’s vision. It sheds light on the alternatives to complacency that grips its characters, and it may cause discomfort, but it’s a necessary tonic in today’s climate.

Knight of Cups
(Terrence Malick)

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There’s not a filmmaker alive who rings cherries more than Terrence Malick, even if it has become fashionable to dismiss his recent work. And as the director moves further away from tactile narratives to the avant garde, I’ve found myself increasingly moved by his work. As technology has finally caught up with Malick’s ambitions, his output has captured with increasing efficiency the very movement of memory, rearranging the grammar and syntax of how a film communicates to its audience. Knight of Cups is the apex of Malick’s oeuvre: a bold and personal exercise in confronting internal demons. And unlike the catharsis that highlights much of Malick’s other film, its absence in Knight of Cups suggests a bitter truth that has so often gone unrecognized in contemporary American cinema: that the many distractions we create for ourselves are rendered powerless in the face of the cold, clinical truth.

(Jim Jarmusch)

Jim Jarmusch’s new picture about a poet bus driver is about the gentlest film you can imagine, with its only antagonist being a disgruntled bulldog. But in its sweet simplicity the film uncovers the monumental in the everyday, imbuing the dullness of routine with the lyricism and beauty that can only be told through the eyes of a poet. The world is what you make of it, with Jarmusch arguing that while we often lose sight of the finer details, our existence is one that ought to be cherished.

Toni Erdmann
(Maren Ade)

The film of the year, both timely and timeless in its ability to incisively cut to the marrow of what it means to be a father, a daughter, and a person. Toni Erdmann ends on at least three separate occasions, yet everything that follows seems to possess an urgency that goes beyond its familial trappings. When it does end, you smile to yourself and realize just how every detail of its 162 minutes accumulates into a tapestry of living that captures all of its misgivings and pleasures. There’s not a film this year that left me with more immediate joy nor one that still rattles in my consciousness day-in and day-out since I saw it a month ago. It’s my totem, my vade mecum, of our time and of all time.