It’s officially become a tradition, so here I am sharing my favorite movies, performances, and technical achievements of the cinematic year. I’ve strategically decided that the week before the Oscar nominations is the most appropriate time to reveal my personal preferences, assuming that the Academy will provide me with plenty of stuff to rant about. I’m afraid this year will be no exception, but hey, this is time for positivity! Take a look at the things I liked most, and feel free to either disagree or catch up with the stuff you’re not familiar with. Maybe you’ll find a favorite, too!
I already explained why The Lobster is my favorite film of the year in my Top Ten list, but something that I haven’t said before -and something I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about- is how unnerving the movie’s depiction of complacency is. It’s very unsettling when people in a movie don’t acknowledge when weird stuff happens. This movie is particularly unsettling because the inhabitants of this dystopia seem to be perfectly fine with the horrible nature of their world. Perhaps something to keep in mind in a world that seems to be quickly warming up to fascism.
- Jackie: which turns Jackie Kennedy’s days of grief into an operatic portrait of a turning point in American history.
- Paterson: in which everyday life becomes fantasy, and routine of a bus-driving poet becomes a profound experience.
- Toni Erdmann: in which three hours prove to be the appropriate running time to make a hilarious movie about a fascinating father-daughter relationship.
- The Witch: in which a subversive ending turns horror into glory, and paints a new picture out of America’s dark past.
Pablo Larraín (Jackie)
When I did these awards last year I ended up writing a lot about the many virtues of Carol -and deservedly so- but this year I decided to spread the wealth and showcase different people. So, even though my favorite movie of the year is The Lobster, I want to sing the praises of Larraín’s truly unique direction for Jackie. There are a lot of people out there who don’t like this movie, and I can see why. It makes weird choices throughout, and seems to be constantly getting in its own way. Natalie Portman’s exaggerated accent, the deflating score, and other such choices seem to be actively working against the movie’s status as a “prestige picture”, and yet, it’s this tension that makes the movie such a fascinating portrayal of the dysfunctional relationship between America and its own history regarding not only the Kennedys, but power, womanhood, and politics as a whole.
- Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann): For understanding that she needed time, and patience, to complete such a perfectly observed movie.
- Robert Eggers (The Witch): Because his choices are staggeringly precise, and they accumulate beautifully creating one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen.
- Jim Jarmusch (Paterson): A veteran who hadn’t quite grooved this way before, creating poetry out of daily life, and managing to not be cheesy.
- Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster): Because Lanthimos is a master of tone and pace, and of extremely dark, and extremely effective, humor.
Annette Bening (20th Century Women)
It is highly unlikely that Bening will not get an Oscar nomination this year. A truly tragic development considering that Bening has somehow never won despite being one of the best actresses of her generation made even more unbearable by the fact that her work in 20th Century Women might very well be the best performance of her career. The movie is basically a love-letter to her character, but Bening’s Dorothea is no saint. She is warm, complicated, and extremely natural. She embodies the character in a way that is not as realistic as it is truthful. It’s a generous performance, too. No scenery chewing or capital-A acting. Bening shares the screen no matter who she’s acting against, and the movie is better for it.
- Kate Beckinsale (Love & Friendship): For portraying the most heroic character of the year, and for the return of a fantastic comedienne who’s been awfully misused by Hollywood.
- Sonia Braga (Aquarius): Talk about heroic characters, there isn’t a force of nature as powerful as this very real woman.
- Isabelle Huppert (Elle and Things to Come): The magic of Huppert is that her performances are equally natural yet represent completely different women. She makes it look easy.
- Ruth Negga (Loving): How can one be so subtle and expressive at the same time? Her silent acting is magnificent. The way she talks on the phone!
And because I’m sick and tired of actresses not getting enough respect, and because it’s been such a great year for female actors and I agonized long and hard to narrow my list down to five, I’ve decided to share the names of the many deserving women who almost made it:
- Royalty Hightower (The Fits): This newcomer acts with her whole body in a way trained professionals rarely do. Bonus points for having an awesome name.
- Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann): For providing pathos and complexity beyond the character’s wet-blanket exterior, and for the immense catharsis when she finally breaks loose.
- Min-hee Kim (The Handmaiden): For having so much fun peeling off the layers of sexy, repressed, flirty, anxious, evil, and love that run through the character.
- Natalie Portman (Jackie): For a stylized performance in which transparency and camp reveal deeper and uncomfortable truths about character, and the film it inhabits.
- Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen): For a performance that raises the bar of teenage comedy protagonists, for a tour-de-force in the most unexpected of places.
Adam Driver (Paterson)
Great casting will get you half of the way to a great performance. Is there a more brilliant decision, when trying to cast a character who is supposed to represent the essence of mundane, common, everyday life, than casting someone who looks as alien and unique as Adam Driver? His screen persona is so different, you can’t help but be fascinated by everything he does. He is capable of transmitting extreme warmth while keeping a certain edge. Think, for example, of his masterful use of pauses before he answers a question. It was a simple question. What exactly was the character thinking in that second? It’s a performance that invites us to think beyond what we see on the screen.
- Colin Farrell (The Lobster): For embodying a tone and a rhythm, it’s an offbeat performance but one that best embodies the spirit of the movie it’s in.
- Ryan Gosling (The Nice Guys): For making you believe he is descended from a long line of top-notch physical comedians, masters of the slapstick form.
- Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight): For playing an impossible character, managing to show wells of emotion through a man who has caged himself from any feeling.
- Peter Simonischeck (Toni Erdmann): For playing the most complicated “prankster” in movie history. Because you know where his behavior is coming from.
Best Supporting Actress
Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash)
There is a reveal about the exact identity of Johnson’s character late in the film which I won’t spoil. I will say, however, that one the reveal comes, that’s when you truly understand her prowess. Things that you might have thought of as flaws, like the fact that she seems to be playing an ideal of youth and beauty more than a specific person, and how certain moments of playfulness and vulnerability seem to betray her posturing, are revealed to be not only fully intentional, but acutely calibrated. Johnson is quickly becoming one of the smartest actresses in Hollywood, and can’t wait to see what she does next (it’s the Fifty Shades sequel, and I can’t wait).
- Olivia Colman (The Lobster): Not the most complex of characters, but an opportunity for a great actress to cement herself as a master of deadpan comedy.
- Julie Delpy (Wiener-Dog): For finding the dark place where motherly empathy and selfish cruelty meet, and for that bizarre bedside monologue, of course.
- Elle Fanning (20th Century Women): For embracing true teenage confusion, performance, and vulnerability, and for her imitation of “the way men walk”.
- Rima Te Wiata (Hunt for the Wilderpeople): For making the most of her screentime, for being so funny and warm it actually hurts when she’s gone.
Best Supporting Actor
Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!)
I don’t know when’s the last time an actor gave a “breakthrough” performance quite as significant as shocking as Ehrenreich does in the Coen Brothers’ latest movie. It’s very rare that I go into a movie knowing virtually nothing about a performer and come out thinking “this guy’s going to be the next big star!” The closest thing I can remember is seeing Emma Stone in Easy A, but I had seen her in stuff before then. This is some other level shit. This is the magic of Ehrenreich, who absolutely steals the show by giving not only the funniest, but the warmest, most memorable performance in a movie full of stars. His next gig is playing young Han Solo in a Star Wars movie. So, yeah, the next big star.
- Tom Bennett (Love & Friendship): For the most endearing buffoon I’ve ever met. For writing, in his own hilarious way, both poetry and verse.
- Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash): For deciding it was time to gift the world with the most uninhibited and uncompromising performance of his career.
- Andre Holland (Moonlight): For taking an ideal and turning him into a character, for bringing deep humanity, resulting in the sexiest performance of the year.
- Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!): The charismatic stand-out in a talented ensemble, a potential star in the making.
Best Ensemble Cast
I don’t want to undercut my own award, but there is a performance in this movie that sticks out to me as not quite belonging with the rest. It’s not a bad performance, but it’s an atypically showy characterization, which only distracts because all other performances are so perfectly calibrated. I wouldn’t call the dialogue in this movie naturalistic, yet these actors find the Truth in Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell McCraney’s words. No matter my misgivings, I always believe these are real people with full inner lives and raw emotion at their core.
- 20th Century Women: Because you can’t find a core group of actors that plays so well and so effortlessly off each other than the core five.
- Hell or High Water: Strong performances at the center, perhaps an even stronger set of minor parts? So many waitresses and bank clerks, and so many of them memorable.
- The Lobster: Because every single player brings their personal touch, and finds room for it within a uniform vision of offbeat tone and cadence.
- Love & Friendship: Beckinsale is the main event, but the artists that surround her are essential to creating a perfect comedic symphony.
Best Original Screenplay
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
If you reduce the thing to its very bones, you come to the realization that Toni Erdmann is one of those movies in which an uptight character learns to loosen up after interacting with an eccentric cook. Kinda like Zorba the Greek. Well, I hate Zorba the Greek, and can’t stand movies like it. The fact that Ade found a way to tell this kind of story without turning me off is a huge merit in and on itself, but the truth is that what Ade is doing is so much more complex, and makes up for a much deeper and complicated movie. It’s not that “Toni” teaches Ines to loosen up. The brilliant last scene in the movie makes it very clear that the ramifications of this adventure are more bittersweet than we first imagined.
- 20th Century Women (Mike Mills): “Really? Look, wondering if you’re happy is just a shortcut to being depressed”
- The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou): “If you encounter any problems you cannot resolve yourselves, you will be assigned children. That usually helps”
- Paterson (Jim Jarsmuch): “Alright, Marvin. Don’t get dog-jacked.”
- The Witch (Robert Eggers): “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
Best Adapted Screenplay
Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
How to measure the effectiveness of an adaptation? Is it how well one captures the essence of the original writer? Because then Stillman deserves serious kudos for capturing the more acidic side of Austen that is rarely seen on screen. Or is it, perhaps, how one tackles the challenges of translating a work from one medium to another? The character of James Martin, for example, is only referred to in Austen’s original novella, yet turns into the most valuable comedic weapon of Stillman’s adaptation. No matter how you measure it, Stillman’s script is impeccable, and it’s a shame it wasn’t more celebrated by critics and award-giving bodies. It’s no surprise, though, as the heroic Lady Susan says: “Americans have truly shown themselves to be a Nation of ingrates, only by having children can we begin to understand such a dynamic.”
- A Bigger Splash (David Kajganich): “Honesty is the greatest fidelity / Yeah, well, the world is not ready for your honesty”
- Elle (David Birke): “The picture of a little girl as a psychopath. Next to her father, the psychopath. My empty stare in the photo is terrifying… Not bad, huh?”
- The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, Cheung Seo-Kung): “I wish I had milk so I could breastfeed you”
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi): “Faulkner is cauc-asian – well they got that wrong because you’re obviously white”
Jackie (Stephane Fontaine)
Fontaine matches the textures and formats of archival footage of Jackie Kennedy, and for the most part, this is a feat of uncanny fidelity. What is so special about the cinematography is that by approaching the look and 1:4 aspect ratio of documentary footage of the time, the movie ends up coming closer to Jackie’s point of view. It’s the tension of whether we are seeing her from a scientific perspective, or if we’re actually close to her and seeing things from her perspective. That’s one of the many brilliant conflicts in the film. We can never know exactly what’s in the head of our leaders, can we?
- Hail, Caesar! (Roger Deakins): For beautiful compositions against the California sun, and for an astonish recreation of the look of fifties Hollywood movies.
- Moonlight (James Laxton): There is a history of cinematography (and cinematographers) being unkind to black skin, this movie looks so beautiful it feels like a confrontation of said history.
- The Neon Demon (Natasha Braier): If this movie is an embodiment of the shallow world it’s depicting, then the stark beauty of the cinematography is the key bridge between theme and aesthetic.
- The Witch (Jarin Blaschke): For moody and ethereal use of natural light that puts the empty showiness of The Revenant to shame. This is the face of horror!
Best Production Design
The Handmaiden (Seong-hi Ryu)
More is always more for Park Chan-wook. The Handmaiden’s aesthetic could easily be described as Baroque thanks to its lavishly decorated mansion. I don’t know what artistic movement is most commonly associated with the concept of layers, but The Handmaiden has them. Think of the way Japanese, Western, and Korean architecture stand next to each other, interacting but never fully merging. It’s a touch representative of the movie’s colonial backdrop, it’s also a reflection of the incompatibility of our main lovers with the world that surrounds them.
- Hail, Caesar! (Jess Gonchor): A recreation of classic Hollywood not as it was, but as we all wish it would’ve been. Classy and cheesy to the perfect degree.
- High-Rise (Mark Tildesley): “The building is a character” might be a hoaky statement, but also a true one. With its ugly seventies design, it’s almost a monster.
- Kubo and the Two Strings (Nelson Lowry): For the magic of turning tangible fabric and paper into impossible creations.
- Swiss Army Man (Jason Kisvarday): It’s highly improbable that those fanciful contraptions could’ve been built in the wild, but this is the farting corpse movie. And said creations look beautiful.
Best Costume Design
A Bigger Splash (Giulia Piersanti)
This might sound like a joke considering how much time most characters in this movie spend naked, but this is a story about famous rich people on vacation, and the costuming is one of the key parts of its story-telling. You immediately learn so much about the characters based on what they are (or aren’t) wearing. Hell, a whole scene revolves around Mathias Schoenaerts suggesting what Tilda Swinton should wear to go take as stroll through town. What he suggests, and what she ends up wearing tell a whole story about these people.
- Hail, Caesar! (Mary Zophres): So much fun. There is delight in seeing our biggest stars appear in old-fashioned costumes, not to mention the ridiculous gag made out of Tilda’s hats.
- The Handmaiden (Sang-gyeong Jo): The colonial and misogynist tensions I wrote about in production design extend to the pristine costumes.
- The Neon Demon (Erin Benach): If you’re going to be a film about the fashion industry, you better look good. Costuming here is not subtle, but neither is the movie. It tells its story in broad strokes, and so do the costuming choices.
- Queen of Katwe (Mobolaji Dawodu): This movie’s biggest strength is the vibrancy of its setting, Dawodu delivers with some amazing costumes, and has a lot of fun with David Oyelowo’s shirts.
Special Award for Best Individual Costume of the Year: Nadine’s blue jacket in The Edge of Seventeen. You know teenagers will grow up to buy this thing online.
Jackie (Sebastián Sepúlveda)
There is undoubtful skill in the editing of montage, or assembling footage outside chronological order to create a flowing feature. From what I hear, the differences between script and movie are considerable in terms of the movie’s point of view, and I suspect editing was crucial for that. I also suspect editing was essential in establishing the “alienation effect” I wrote about in my review of the film. That little border between reality and artifice that makes this such an exciting movie.
- A Bigger Splash (Walter Fasano): For a film that has fun turning from casual to comedic to thrilling to tragic, and remaining always sexy.
- The Handmaiden (Kim Jae-bum, Kim Sang-bum): I’m fundamentally opposed to movies that run longer than two hours, but if you do you better have a thousand twists and turns and a killer pace.
- The Lobster (Yorgos Mavropsaridis): Because perfect rhythm is at the heart of comedy, no matter how desolate you feel while you laugh.
- The Witch (Louise Ford): For building unbearable tension while completely dispensing of cheap scares and such tricks.
Best Original Score
Jackie (Mica Levi)
The brilliant thing about Jackie, on a technical level, is that it uses almost every cinematic technique to pull us into the intimacy of Jackie’s point of view, while simultaneously reminding us of the fact that what we’re watching is a fiction. Brecht called it an “alienation effect”, and it is clear as soon as the movie opens, and the first powerful note in Levi’s score deflates into clownish disappointment. The rest of the score is abrasive, melodramatic, and altogether brilliant.
(P.S. click the name of the movie, or any of the movies in the “finalists” section if you want to listen to part of the score on YouTube).
- The Handmaiden (Jo Yeong-wook): For coming up with the right mix of swelling romance and pulpy darkness.
- The Neon Demon (Cliff Martinez): We’ve heard moody, minimalistic, and electronic from Martinez before, but he might’ve outdone himself this time.
- Swiss Army Man (Andy Hull, Robert McDowell): The a capella score is a cute concept that nevertheless reinforces the movie’s own crazy headspace.
- The Witch (Mark Korven): This score is dark and haunting but also playful (in a messed up kind of way) doubling on sound effects and familiar sounds of the horror arsenal.
Best Original Song
“Drive It Like You Stole It” (Sing Street)
In a year with an unusual number of musicals, this coming-of-age Irish movie holds the unlikely distinction of having the best score of them all. Yes, it is a little hard to believe that this particular group of ragtag kids could become such great songwriters so quick, but damn, the songs are so good I just don’t care. It was hard picking one winner. “The Riddle of the Model” and “Up” were strong contenders, but show-stopping “Drive It Like You Stole It” deserves to be sent back in a time machine to become an actual eighties hit.
(P.S. click the name of the movie, or any of the movies in the “finalists” section if you want to listen to the songs on YouTube).
- “#1 Spice” (Queen of Katwe): A silly, but also super cool song that perfectly captures the world and energy of the movie.
- “Equal Rights” (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping): The best parody in a sea of great parody songs, with a very specific but very funny target.
- “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana): The movie’s standout song. The only thing this magnificent “I Want” is missing is a bridge.
- “The Trifecta” (Hunt for the Wilderpeople): Just a short and funny song, but makes for one of the funniest scenes of the year.
Unnerving sound design is the bread and butter of horror film, it is often as important, if not more, than editing to build up suspense and deliver the thrills. The Witch does a masterful job of creating an oppressive aural landscape in which quiet puritan life is confronted by the dangerous wilderness that surrounds it. Impeccable choices are made throughout, be it in the otherworldliness of Caleb’s seduction, or the violent stomping of a deranged goat. If nothing else, the movie deserves an award for the design and mix of Black Philip’s voice. A true aural payoff.
- Elle: For the discomforting difference between its quiet conversations, and its shocking, more violent moments.
- The Light Between Oceans: The sound in this movie does so much, perhaps even more than the images, to suggest the remote, testy nature of this lonely island.
- Moana: Whoever was in charge of turning water into a literal character deserves more than just a pat in the back.
- The Neon Demon: Because how appropriate is it that every room feels like a vacuum in a movie about shallowness?
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The Edge of Seventeen
Not the kind of movie you expect to see rewarded for makeup. There are no monsters, no zombies, no old-age makeup in this high school comedy, but the thing that struck me the most about The Edge of Seventeen was its authenticity. The actors in this movie are all very attractive, but they also look like real life teenagers. This occurred to me when the “beautiful girl” character of the movie has realistically frizzy hair. It’s not that her hair looked bad, it’s just that it wasn’t exhaustively brushed to perfection. It didn’t looked as if a teenager had done her hair, not professional hairstylist.
- Green Room: For featuring some of the goriest and most revolting makeup effects of the year. Could barely watch, so job well done?
- The Wailing: Quite effective in depicting a gross sickness, and in the truly gruesome makeup effects of its most violent moments.
Best Visual Effects
Kubo and the Two Strings
We too often correlate photorealism with greatness when it comes to visual effects. The more realistic something looks, the better it is. But an artificially created image will never look like an actual photograph, our eyes will always catch the uncanniness. Visual Effects are so much more than realism, they are a way of enhancing the magic of filmmaking. Laika animation has been making gorgeous movies since its inception, but they have top themselves with Kubo, a movie that so seamlessly blends stop-motion animation and computer generated images that one doesn’t even notice these are two different crafts interacting with each other. It is truly magical.
- Doctor Strange: Inspired by Inception, no question, but takes the idea of a folding city to a whole other level of trippy-ness.
- Midnight Special: Not a big fan of the movie, but had to make room for the meteor-shower scene, an amazing set-piece on its own right.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: The whole Tarkin thing is especially atrocious, when you consider all other effects to be impeccable.
- Swiss Army Man: An endearing case of charmingly low-fi effects serving the overall aesthetic of a hilariously high-concept movie. You’ll believe a man can fart!