A lot has been written about how 2016 has been a terrible year. And who are we kidding, enough horrible and scary things happened to make us fear next year might be our last. But, hey, if humanity is going to perish, at least I’ll perish in the movie theater. Don’t let anybody come at you with that “tv is better than movies” bullshit. Movies are better than ever, you just need to know where to look!
Ten Twelve Best Movies of 2016
1. The Lobster
(Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 119 min, UK/Greece)
I’ve written multiple times about The Lobster in this blog, and yet never a full review. It’s hard finding something to say about a movie that seems to be tailor-made to appeal to my personal sensibility. The static long takes, the deadpan comedy, the morbid social commentary, and that bold ambiguous ending are all things I adore. Perhaps impeccable filmmaking and deeply funny comedy are the things I need in order to love a pitch-dark movie about a wretched dystopia in which humans insist on building societies around dogmas, and it is impossible to avoid compromise if one is to find happiness. You know, just like in real life.
(Dir. Pablo Larraín, 99 min, USA)
The best American movie of the year is also one of the most relevant. Chilean director Pablo Larraín recruits Natalie Portman to create a fascinating portrait of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the days after her husband’s assassination. Jackie is a film about the underestimated power of women femininity. Frivolous, materialistic Jackie might have been the most instrumental actor in cementing JFK’s legacy. This is a film that not only argues for the value of superficial (i.e. traditionally female) concerns, but embodies them, clashing the artificiality of Jackie’s performative self with the raw immediacy of her tragedy.
3. Toni Erdmann
(Dir. Maren Ade, 162 min, Germany)
How can you convince someone to watch a three-hour-plus German movie (which is kind of a comedy but not as much as it is a movie about humor) about an uptight woman working for a consulting firm in Romania and the frail relationship she has with her father, a school teacher who pranks people by wearing fake teeth and a wig? How can you convey how deeply hilarious, and yet liberating and joyous it was to experience its most bizarre comedic set-pieces? How can you explain that not only does the extremely long running time fly by, but that it is essential to develop two of the richest characters you’ve ever seen on screen? The best answer I can come up with is putting said movie in your top ten of the year.
(Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 118 min, USA)
It’s easy to forget that going to work every day, coming home to a loving wife (or husband), walking your dog, and getting a drink at the bar at the end of the day are all luxuries in their own way. There was a time when human beings had to be careful not to be eaten by sabertooth tigers. Stability is a privilege. Jim Jarmusch finds the poetry in day-to-day life in his latest feature, which focuses on a New Jersey poet who makes his living as a bus driver. Adam Driver brings his unique offbeat charm to help Jarmusch paint an idyllic picture of working class America. A reminder that a mundane life can be beautiful, and should be protected.
5. The Witch: A New-England Folktale
(Dir. Robert Eggers, 92 min, USA)
The best horror film I’ve seen in a long, long time. Some complained that it wasn’t “scary” enough. Those people can have their cheap jump-scares and gory torture porn back. I will stick with this complex family portrait of America’s foundational years. Eggers idiosyncratic choices, such as lifting dialogue straight from 17th century sources, and shooting in beautifully opaque natural light, make The Witch one of the most perfectly crafted horror movies I have ever seen. And it’s not just a beautiful machine, it has something very urgent, and rather scary, to say about the role of women and religion in American society.Wouldst I like to live deliciously? Hell, yes.
6. 20th Century Women
(Dir. Mike Mills, 119 min, USA)
What could have been a movie about women serving a male protagonist’s coming of age becomes something much richer, and rarer. This is the kind of movie that is so full of heart, and is so generous toward its characters, that it can seamlessly bounce from awkward comedy to poignant drama within a couple lines of dialogue. It’s a movie about understanding, and putting oneself in another person’s shoes. Every character is deeply defined, with a rich inner life of their own, and they come to life thanks to a fantastic ensemble led by the great Annette Bening giving the best performance of her career.
7. The Handmaiden
(Dir. Park Chan-wook, 144 min, South Korea)
A pickpocket is recruited by a con artist to infiltrate the house of a Japanese heiress in a plan to steal all her money, only the pickpocket inadvertently falls in love with the woman she is supposed to ruin. That’s only the beginning of Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, which transposes the story from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea, and makes up for one of the craziest and most entertaining movies of the year. If you like twisty plots, steamy romances, and good filmmaking, there’s a good chance you’ll love The Handmaiden. That it ends up being a violently feminist movie is the beautiful cherry on top of this insane sundae.
8. Things to Come
(Dir. Mia Hansen-Love, 102 min, France)
I don’t think you can purposely make a movie be great the way Things to Come is great. Not to suggest that director Mia Hansen-Løve “accidentally” made a good movie, but, I mean, how do you do that? How do you write or direct something and think: “this movie is going to be very naturalistic and seemingly uneventful, but its casual nature is what’s going to make it a really deep and moving look at the nature of life, and time, and growing older.” There is no way a movie so unassumingly magical can be designed to be such a thing. I suppose you can give yourself a head start by casting an actress as formidable as Isabelle Huppert. But still. How?
9. A Bigger Splash
(Dir. Luca Guadagnino, 125 min, Italy)
This is my Avengers. Operatic master Guadagnino’s latest feature seems tailor-made to appeal to me. Who cares if Captain America and Iron Man got into a fight, the real headliner is Tilda vs. Fiennes! Here’s what we’re dealing with: Tilda Swinton as a David Bowie-like glamorous rockstar, Ralph Fiennes as a blabbermouth record producer, and Dakota Johnson as his sexy and mischievous daughter. This is a sensual comedy that turns into an unexpected thriller. It is a movie about pleasure and privilege, but let’s be honest, the real privilege is to be able to watch these amazing performers play off each other.
10. Hail, Caesar!
(Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 106 min, USA)
Forget Scorsese’s Silence, this is the best crisis-of-faith movie of the year. The definitive aspect of the Coen Brothers’ filmography has been their cosmology, building a body of work that’s deeply interested in the fight of good versus evil, as well as God’s role in the whole thing. This time, through the tale of semi-fictional classic Hollywood “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), they try to reconcile superficial pleasures with the almighty’s desire for us to live a righteous life. How does a devout catholic like Mannix feel about working in the sordid movie business? Not great! This is also the far more pleasurable crisis-of-faith movie of the year, featuring some of our biggest stars (including a dancing Channing Tatum) and some of the best comedy of the year.
11. Love & Friendship
(Dir. Whit Stillman, 92 min, USA/UK)
Jane Austen’s heroines are always looking for the perfect match. That’s one of the reasons why movie adaptations of her work have focused on the romantic aspects of her comedy (the other reason being bankability). When it comes to capturing the pragmatic and acidic side of the author, Austen might have found her match in Whit Stillman, one of the great satirists of the upper classes. Kate Beckinsale stars as Lady Susan Vernon, a superficial and selfish woman who secures a future for herself by using her exquisite talent for social scheming. In short, she is one of the most heroic characters of the year.
12. The Neon Demon
(Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn, 118 min, Denmark/USA)
Unfairly criticized by many for being dumb and empty, the genius of The Neon Demon is precisely how dumb and empty it manages to be. As satire of the vapid world of fashion modeling in Los Angeles, this is as unsubtle as it gets. But the lack of subtlety is completely appropriate. This is a movie that isn’t criticizing the dark world of fashion as much as it is embodying it. Pretty on the outside (the production values are superb, and Refn has as much as ever staging pretty images), seemingly empty on the inside, and if you actually crack the whole thing open, well, then you get to the monstrous core of the whole thing. And it’s quite ugly.
The Worst Movies of 2016
For the most part, I try to avoid movies I know I’m going to despise. I’m glad to report that I mostly succeeded in that department this year. I saw a lot of disappointing and mediocre movies this year, but they almost uniformly had one redeeming quality or another. Not that many outright horrible movies this year! But of course, I did manage to see some true stinkers. They are:
1. Suicide Squad (Directed by David Ayer)
People were up in arms trashing Batman v. Superman, which is admittedly a mess, but is also full of personality, and (perhaps misguided) ideas. You can’t even say that much about Suicide Squad, which despite branding itself as a “cool” alternative to your usual superhero movies, does absolutely nothing to subvert the genre, unless you count barely having a plot and looking like a cheap student film as acts of subversion.
2. Deadpool (Directed by Tim Miller)
And speaking of subverting the superhero genre, guess what movie also branded itself as a cheeky parody of superheroes and thought adding a couple one-liners would be enough to not have us realize it was as conventional as blockbusters get? This movie did make a bunch of money, so what do I know…
3. Nocturnal Animals (Directed by Tom Ford)
Not the ugliest movie on the outside (there is a level of craft here), but definitely the ugliest movie on the inside. At least the movie announces itself as a hateful piece of cinema in its opening credits. I don’t know if I’m angrier at the movie’s facile depiction of the vapid superficiality of the art world, or its condescending and repugnant view of “middle” America, but some things are for sure: this movie has nothing but contempt for humanity, and worst of all, nothing to say.
4. Sausage Party (Directed by Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon)
Listen, if you think the idea of hearing cartoon characters say “fuck” and talk about sex is hilarious enough to support a 90-minute movie, well, then who am I to keep you from having a laugh. But to suggest that this juvenile piece of junk has anything remotely intelligent to say about religion, as many critics have… well, that’s just irresponsible.
5. Captain Fantastic (Directed by Matt Ross)
This is the story of a psychopathic hippie who dragged a woman to the middle of a forest and forced her to breed children who where later indoctrinated to be dogmatic pseudo-socialists just like their father. Only instead of being a horror movie, it presents itself as a heartwarming comedy-drama. This movie’s protagonist is a man with a lesser capacity to understand nuances than a college freshman, and yet the movie suggests his attempt at parenting could result in anything other than him raising a pack of sociopaths. What this movie finds cute and endearing, I find horrifying.
I will find comfort in the belief that, if the world doesn’t end next year, the lack of commercial success of The Edge of Seventeen -one of the most truthful depictions of middle-class teenage life and grievances- will transform into deep and enduring fandom once the movie hits Netflix and teenagers are actually able to watch it (this was an R-rated movie, because the American movie rating system is useless). Just like it happened with Mean Girls and Pitch Perfect, we’ll look back and be surprised this wasn’t a bigger hit. It won’t matter. A generation of teenagers will be defined by this movie, nonetheless.
I guess I must make piece with the idea that Laika Entertainment, while remaining one of the best and most original Animation Studios in the world, will merely put out pretty great movies every couple of years, and not one game-changing masterpiece after another. This is all to say that Kubo and the Two Strings, while being a really, really good movie and a contender for the best American animated feature of the year, is not quite the next masterpiece I was hoping it to be, and so, I was a little disappointed. Although it might’ve just been irresponsible to assume any studio could ever reach the miraculous one-two punch of producing Coraline and Paranorman one after the other.
Best Popcorn Movie
From what I understand, the term “popcorn” is supposed to highlight a movie outside of my top ten that made for the most entertaining watch of the year without necessarily being anything profound. And you don’t get much more entertaining, or less profound than The Shallows, the gloriously effective summer thriller in which Blake Lively fights a shark. This movie is lean, focused, straight to the point, and awesome. If it were up to me, I’d cancel all future Marvel movies and make more small thrillers like this one.
Before we move on to the next category, I would like to give an Honorable Mention to the last third of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. If the whole movie had been as good as the Battle of Scarif, it would’ve been one of the best movies of the year.
This category truly belongs to any of the movies in my “Honorable Mentions” section, as I feel none of them have really gotten as much attention as they deserve. Most of them are either foreign or independent productions, with small budgets but great, bold, and ambitious ideas and unique visions. But even if they didn’t make much money, they did get a fair share of critical praise. If you want to talk about a perfectly good movie that didn’t get its due, look no further than Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, an incredibly silly but honestly hilarious mockumentary in the style of This is Spinal Tap. The movie was probably too silly to be deemed respectable, but good comedy is rare, and Popstar delivers on the belly laughs like almost no other movie this year.
Usually, I try to pick something that I haven’t mentioned already in each category, but I am just appalled by the realization that four of the very worst movies I saw this year have gotten mostly positive reviews. Some of them have even been nominated for awards! Make no mistake, the sophomoric humor of Deadpool, the immature philosophy of Sausage Party, the crass vision of humanity in Nocturnal Animals, and the pandering of Captain Fantastic are all simply terrible. At least everyone could agree that Suicide Squad is just the worst.