This year proved to be another good year for film, especially of the independent and documentary kinds. The number of films that I saw this year was way down, but I still found a good number of fresh films that thrilled, disturbed, delighted, and most of all, transported me in some way. Isn’t that what every film should do?
The still-to-see list is a long one. I’m most curious for Paterson – as a huge fan of Jim Jarmusch’s work – and also Moonlight, 13th, Toni Erdmann, and on and on. Films that didn’t make my current 10 but are right up there include: Chevalier, The Fits, Green Room, La La Land, Love + Friendship, Sunset Song, and the docs Weiner and The Last Man on the Moon.
And with that, here are my picks for the 10 best films of 2016 (alpha’d) – many highly original films that grabbed me from the first frame.
[Addendum] Finally saw Paterson – excellent, Moonlight, ditto, Arrival – very good. The move: A Bigger Splash to the 11th spot, and slot Paterson into my top 10.
1 > A Bigger Splash Starring Tilda Swinton – that’s enough for me. Her performances are always unique and fully committed. Director Luca Guadagnino has mixed up a soapy cocktail of love, seduction, obsession, and jealously in sun-soaked Sicily, and topped it with terrific performances by the foursome of Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson and Swinton. The film takes a dark dip into human behavior where truth and intentions become fluid.
2 > Captain Fantastic I’m so glad that Viggo Mortenson left the stereotypical leading man parts behind and turned his considerable talent to character-driven roles. With consistently fine work from the actor in film after film, this performance directed by Matt Ross is no different. As a devoted father of six living in the remote forests of the Pacific Northwest, the children are home-schooled and isolated from the evils of Capitalism and the ills of the outside world. When tragedy strikes, the film shifts to social commentary and presents questions about the viability of parental lifestyle choices and the impact that has on children.
3 > Certain Women Indie minimalist filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has a singular vision in her diverse body of work. Her films are unique in topic and execution, with the most common thread about women at their center. This film follows four women with different stories and challenges in a tiny town in remote Montana. In this quiet masterpiece featuring the director’s muse, Michelle Williams, along with Kristin Stewart and Laura Dern, the actors deliver beautiful performances of women finding grace, not in change, but in acceptance of the everyday.
4 > Elle The wonders of Isabelle Huppert never cease to amaze me: Two extraordinary, back-to-back performances (the other is in the wonderful Things to Come). Huppert’s character in Elle, a dark and perversely disturbing sexual exploration from director Paul Verhoeven, is a rape survivor who finds her own means to deal with the attack. Revenge never quite looked like this. Hovering between black, black comedy and social commentary on the power inequity between the sexes, it’s a twisted, tough watch, but tougher to look away.
5 > Everybody Wants Some!! Never ever thought that a frat house flick would make my top 10 list. But if anyone could make a narrative about a bunch of baseball jocks charming and funny – college freshmen on the weekend before the start of university in the ‘80s – Richard Linklater can, and has done. At the film’s start, all these dudes looked alike to me and had two primal motivations: sports and sex. The miracle of Linklater’s touch is that he gives each character depth and distinction. It’s not so much that you care where their various discussions lead, but the fact they end up having them at all is amusing and touching.
6 > The Handmaiden Con or truth – it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins in this adaptation of the British novel Fingersmith, by director Park Chan-wook (Stoker). A sensual, gorgeous and engrossing tale of a young, secluded Japanese woman and her recently hired Korean handmaiden who has been put in place to swindle the former out of her large inheritance. In the director’s unique vision, the film’s twists and turns (with a fair amount of kinky and bloody thrown in) make for pure surreal cinema. A dream!
7 > The Lobster This is the most original film that I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever. The Lobster is also my favorite of the year. In a demented and romantic future, a newly single man has 45 days to find a mate, or be turned into an animal of his choosing to live out his life. The title make more sense, right? Director and writer Yorgos Lanthimos’ first English-language film stars Colin Farrell in another terrific performance, as one of the many singles who face that challenge. It’s fun to watch the strong cast in this Kafka-esque satire including Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman and Ben Whishaw portray other oddballs in this universe trying to cope with a new way of life.
8 > Manchester by the Sea With a cast lead by Casey Affleck (giving the performance of his career to date) this film by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan is achingly graceful. Stress on achingly – the loss and grief are pervasive, with a few openings for a chuckle or two. This working-class story revolves around family obligations – where the death of a brother and the charge of a nephew weigh heavily on Affleck’s Lee. By returning to his hometown, Lee is forced to deal with his past and the reality that life continues to move on, with or without us in tow.
9 > Tale of Tales In this seductive film, director Matteo Garrone presents a truer fairytale – of the nightmarish and dark kind. In his kingdoms, a king cuts out the heart of a sea creature, a nobleman overfeeds a flea, a young girl is betrothed to an ogre, and an old woman reclaims her youth and beauty. This equally gorgeous and grotesque fantasy is completely enchanting. With imaginative and interwoven storytelling, Garrone explores both the beautiful and ugly lessons that fairytales present. Loved it!
10 > The Witch Writer/director Robert Eggers’ debut feature is a New England folktale about a family in the mid 1600s banished by their religious community, and forced to relocate alongside a mysterious forest. It is bona fide chilling. As strange things begin to occur, each family member’s faith and loyalty are tested. Set decades before the Salem witch trials, the film presents parallels between Puritan religious beliefs and mass hysteria and paranoia. Whether the torment is earthly or otherworldly rests with the viewer. The film is exquisitely lit and shot, with its period details and with a soundtrack that is as much a character as the actors. [Spoiler alert] never trust goats.
Probably an odd best 10 list, but I’d rather go with interesting films that may have a few flaws than those riding the wave of popularity in awards season. As in 2015, this year was too much of a good thing.
What films rose above the rest for you in 2016?