So as some of you may have noticed, this year I did not opt to do my annual series of awards posts celebrating the best of the year in cinema. There were a few reasons for this, but what it came down to is simply finding the time while also contending with school, work, a social life, and all the other BS that comes with living. Still, that shouldn’t suggest I haven’t been keeping up with the movies all year because I certainly have. The general consensus is that 2016 was a weak year but I don’t really agree with that. Rather, I think it was a weak year for big-budget Hollywood entertainment, but there were plenty of smaller films to adore. I actually had to make some tough cuts for my top ten list, but all told I’m pretty happy with the films I’ve collected here. Let it be known however that I was unfortunately not able to see Silence. Scorsese’s new religious drama has yet to open where I go to school and I doubt I’ll be able to get a crack at it until March. With that of the way, let’s dive in!
10. Knight of Cups
I had a lot of films competing for this final slot but I ultimately decided to go for Terrence Malick’s much maligned newest feature. The film’s divisive status certainly influenced its placement, but more than anything Knight of Cups has proven to be one of the most memorable and unique cinematic experiences I had all year. Eschewing a traditional narrative, the film consists of a series of vignettes following a disillusioned screenwriter (Christian Bale) as he navigates a series of relationships, affairs, events, and family drama. Malick’s films have grown increasingly plotless in recent memory and that reaches something of an apex with Knight of Cups. Despite some heavy levels of abstraction, I do think the film pretty clearly dwells on themes of failed relationships and how the death of a loved one can affect a person later in life. In that sense, the film is very much a continuation of the themes explored in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, and I suspect these themes are quite personal to Malick (I doubt it’s a coincidence that the main character here is also a Hollywood outsider searching for meaning).
Still, one need not be caught up in trying to decipher what Malick’s intentions are to appreciate the cinematic journey crafted here. The weightless cinematography captures both the beauty of the natural world and that of humanity while Hanan Townshend’s score is absorbing. Individual moments are so well-crafted that one finds themselves completely enthralled even with the plot feeling so distant. Knight of Cups is certainly not a perfect film (it never closes out its protagonist’s arc), but its meditation on trying to find meaning in life still resonates heavily. I for one am intrigued by what yet waits in Malick’s career.
I’ve admired Denis Villenueve’s talents for a while now, but prior to 2016 I’d found his English-language films unworthy of his talents. In that sense, Arrival feels like a movie directly targeted towards me. Not only does it have an original and highly creative script, but it’s also a distinctly grounded example of hard science-fiction (the kind of sci-fi I love) and it stars Amy Adams, who might well be my favourite actress working today. What perhaps stands out most though is the film’s meticulous depiction of the slow process of communication by humans and alien beings. This is the kind of content most sci-fi movies happily skip over, but Villeneuve focuses on the daily minutia rigidly and avoids the Hollywood-esque action moments even when the script would seemingly justify such an approach. That might sound dull, but Villeneuve’s methods of depiction are highly cinematic and the aforementioned Amy Adams does a great job grounding the whole thing and finding the personal in what is on first impression a colder story. I still have issues with the ending, but Arrival is certainly fine cinema.
8. Everybody Wants Some!!
Though it was warmly received on release, Everybody Wants Some!! was completely ignored this awards season with nary an internet think-piece to bemoan its exclusion. One might attribute this to the short-term memory of the Academy and likeminded awards bodies, but more than anything I think Richard Linklater’s newest effort just seemed much lighter and more frivolous after the back-to-back triumphs of Before Midnight and Boyhood. That’s a fair assessment, but that does not mean that Everybody Wants Some!! should be dismissed. While it may not be a particularly deep film, Linklater nonetheless does an amazing job creating a sense of fun surrounding a freshman’s first weekend on a college baseball team in the West Texas of the 1980s. There’s a great sense of camaraderie felt between much of the team and the film is also a masterful example of subtle characterization. You hardly realizee it, but by the end of the film, you find you know all of the major players pretty well. The film also spots an excellent soundtrack and recreates the time period in a way that is both loving but also not pandering to nostalgia. There are some classic Linklater ruminations on life and love, but more than anything I responded to the film’s general feel good-vibe and infectious joy.
The independent coming of age movie has grown increasingly bothersome in the last few years but Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight transcends all of the problems which typically plague films of this subgenre. The fact that the film is not focused on some suburban teenage white boy but the growth of a young gay black man from the lower classes of Miami certainly gives the film a unique perspective. Indeed, Moonlight gains a lot by simply focusing on the experiences of a person we haven’t seen on screen ad nauseam, but that alone would not have grabbed this a spot in my top ten. What sealed the deal is the film’s remarkable insight into human beings and the emotional truth it taps into following Chiron’s story. Chiron himself is played by three different actors at each stage of his journey we see and all three do great work creating a singular character while also giving distinct performances. Also of note are Naomie Harris who gives an amazing turn as Chiron’s mother struggling with addiction, and Mahershala Ali as a drug dealer with a great degree of humanity. The film also features some beautiful cinematography and the editing transitions from moment to moment seamlessly. The three-act structure is also used here brilliantly. Each chapter we see helps inform Chiron’s journey right down to the enticing final shot.
6. Our Little Sister
Our Little Sister has not been one of the most widely discussed movies of the year and it’s easy to see why. For one, the film lacks an elevator pitch-esque juicy hook to draw in curious moviegoers, but another reason is simply that much of the film’s charm is rooted in subtlety and restraint. The story of three adult women who came to take in their teenage half sister after their father passes away could have been an incredibly melodramatic story complete with a lot of big crying scenes and speechifying but Hirokazu Kore-eda never takes that approach. Though the characters have a lot of complicated feelings beneath their surface and in fact encounter other challenging episodes throughout the narrative, their challenges are never framed as particularly dire or costly. Rather, they are just parts of living and while that may sound dull there is in fact something incredibly moving about seeing a group of down to earth, relatable characters who make efforts to better themselves just a little bit. The lack of overt melodrama is in fact crucial to the film’s strength. Had Kore-eda overplayed his hand the resulting film would likely have been some cheesy nonsense. The restraint makes the film all the more powerful. The overall theme of Our Little Sister is about finding joy in life even when not everything is going well and I left the film with a sort of optimism that’s rare.
5. Embrace of the Serpent
Though colonialism is a prominent theme in much of cinema, there aren’t actually that many films that deal directly with the act. Colombian filmmaker Ciro Guerra has thrown his hat into the ring with Embrace of the Serpent, a film which explores the colonialist efforts of Spain in the amazon through the perspective of shaman Karamakate has both a young man in 1909 and an old man in 1940. The dichotomy presented in the two stories is itself an interesting decision as it allows us to see how three decades of colonial abuse changes Karamakate from the angry young idealist to the tired and bitter elderly shaman we see in the film’s other sections. The film takes the form of a river journey wherein Karamakate and his white compatriots encounter all sorts of groups shaped by colonial efforts. Perhaps most memorably is a Christian missionary which is run by an abusive bastard in 1909 and by 1940 has twisted into an insane cult pulling inspiration from The Bible put contorting it to something new entirely. The film also features some of the best cinematography of the year, with the black and white doing a great job sucking the natural beauty out of the Amazon and forcing the viewer to confront the stark truth of Spanish influence whilst never reducing itself to didactic moralizing.
Since winning an Oscar for her work in Black Swan Natalie Portman has been somewhat absent from the screen, apart from being completely wasted in movies like Thor: The Dark World and having her directorial debut met with relative indifference. However she returned to the forefront of prestige cinema in a big way with her amazing turn as America’s most famous First Lady in Jackie. Her performance is indeed brilliant. It’s not only an amazing emulation of the real Jackie Kennedy, but Portman also finds tremendous emotional depth and gives a remarkably layered performance. However, this is not one of those biopics where they only noteworthy thing is the star’s performance. Pablo Larrain’s film is in fact a great deal more challenging than one might expect. The film is framed by an interview with Jackie the week after her husband’s assassination while flashbacks illuminate how Jackie reacted to the crisis. It’s fascinating to watch a woman in the throes of grief nonetheless have tremendous expectations thrust upon her regarding how to proceed and the consequences of her actions will come to define both her husband’s legacy and her own. Legacy is perhaps the key word here. Jackie is very interested in exploring the “Camelot” myth surrounding the Kennedy’s and while Larrain does not seek to dismantle it, he and Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay suggest there may be a little fiction blended with the facts. Despite those sort of big questions, the film never abandons Jackie as a woman, and much of the film’s strength comes from the clash of handling the tragedy personally and professionally concurrently.
3. The Handmaiden
About halfway through Park-Chan Wook’s masterful period drama/romance/con movie, I found myself smiling the widest, dumbest grin possible. This wasn’t because what I was watching was pleasant in any conventional sense, but rather because I found myself completely enamoured with the work unfolding before my eyes. While I don’t see it as the best film of the year (obviously), The Handmaiden does possess the wildest and most inventive screenplay of any film from 2016. The movie starts as a simple con story where a man poses as a sophisticated gentleman in order to marry a wealthy heiress than have her committed to an insane asylum and claim her fortune. He enlists the help of a skilled pickpocket to serve as the heiress’ handmaiden and help with the seduction process. From there, the film takes all sorts of interesting twists and turns, never unfolding quite the way you expect it to. It’s a highly engaging plot, and there’s all sorts of layers which enrich the experience. For one, the film is set in Japanese occupied Korea, with the heiress and the cons divided by national lines. The film plays with themes of self-repression and the film also takes on a more perverse edge (classic Wook) the longer it goes. Perhaps what’s most shocking though is the love story which emerges and how genuinely touching it proves to be.
2. The Witch
After a year of ruminating on the film, I’m comfortable claiming The Witch is the best horror film in decades. I would argue it’s the best since The Silence of the Lambs, and if you’re one of those, “that’s not a horror movie!” people than I’d say since Cronenberg’s The Fly. The film is centered on a puritan family living off the land in 17th century New England who begin to be plagued by a supernatural power which starts to exploit the weakening bonds between the family. That setting is certainly a unique one, not just in horror cinema, but cinema as a whole, and Robert Eggers attention to detail is meticulous. The small-scale story limits the amount of costumes and sets, but the period-accurate dialogue is excellent and the film taps into events like the Salem Witch trials without overt referencing. A similar sense of paranoia is at the heart of The Witch. While the evil committed by the supernatural does a lot to drive the family apart, it’s clear that some tensions existed beforehand. On a technical level, the film features some exquisite cinematography and a haunting score. These elements come together to create a feeling of primal terror and Eggers also crafts some of the creepiest imagery I’ve seen in a long time. Eggers shuns away from jump scares and he is also very patient in dolling out the horror, but he creates such a palpable tension that really mounts and it is incredibly powerful when everything falls apart for this family in the third act.
The skillful filmmaking and genuine fear The Witch instils would have been more than enough to land the film a spot on my top ten, but Eggers goes even further through a subtle exploration of religious extremism and the consequences of it. That these messages are entirely clear while never being overt is a testament to the skillful filmmaking. Audiences looking for a more traditional horror movie might (and indeed have) come away from The Witch perplexed by its rejection of familiar tropes, but those ready for something transcendent will be well served by this modern horror classic.
1. Manchester by the Sea
I really struggled with this top three. As far as I’m concerned, The Handmaiden, The Witch, and Manchester by the Sea are all basically perfect movies. What’s more, they are all excellent for different reasons so the act of ranking them is all the more challenging. I can see where The Handmaiden is more creative and The Witch is more unique, but I ultimately went with Manchester by the Sea for the simple reason that no 2016 film hit me emotionally quite the way Kenneth Lonnergan’s staggering portrait of grief did. Watching Lee Chandler attempt to take in his nephew Patrick after the boy’s father dies while processing his own sorrow (both for his brother’s death and an event in Lee’s past I dare not spoil) is not always easy, but it is an incredibly well-drawn portrait of people trying to cope with something tragic. What is also interesting is that for a film so loaded with tragedy there is in fact a fairly substantial degree of humour to be found in Manchester by the Sea and it comes by genuinely. That certainly helps ease the exploration, but it’s also a choice which adds a lot of authenticity to the whole. The fact is life is not usually divided into distinct phases of good and bad. Real life is often a messy mix of both and while depicting that balance can be tricky on film, somehow Lonnergan does so perfectly.
Much has been said about Casey Affleck’s tour-de-force performance and his work is indeed brilliant, but that should not overshadow the many other strong performances. Lucas Hedges, who previously had a small role in Moonrise Kingdom, gives an amazing breakthrough performance as a young teen struggling with his own sadness while also trying to keep up a façade. Watching Lee and Patrick try to reach each other while also trying to process their grief in different ways is both touching but also challenging. Michelle Williams also does amazing work in a small but crucial role and the rest of the cast add a lot in creating an authentic Boston setting.
Critics tend to respond most to the biggest and the grandest of cinema and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Manchester by the Sea is a smaller work, but scene for scene, it builds a great degree of truth which slowly becomes more involving the longer it goes. By the time the film reaches its end you find yourself totally enraptured in these characters and their story. It isn’t the boldest film of 2016, but it taps into the human condition with remarkable insight, resulting in a film which is affecting and poignant.