Yes, this is late, and I do apologize, but now that I am (mostly) caught up on the Oscar-nominated films, we can finally get to the goods- my favorite films from the offerings of 2016. As of this writing I have seen over 60 movies from 2016 that fall into my personal rules (either a theatrical or festival release in the US or Germany), roughly a third of which were non-English, and here are my absolute favorites of those.
As always, this is in no way an attempt to objectively rank films based on their value, and not being on list in no way means I didn’t think a movie was good. I can’t always quite express why I might like one movie more than another, but I’ll do my best.
We start with, as always….
Honorable Mentions: Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick), Hail,Caesar! (the Coen Brothers), A Lullaby under the Nuclear Sky (Tomoko Kana), The Whispering Star (Sion Sono), Censored Voices (Mor Loushy), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins), The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
10. Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
The latest work from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, this is one of the most interesting takes on the idea of a ghost story I’ve ever seen, focusing on the redemption such a condition could provide rather than its uses for revenge or shock scares. Kurosawa proves himself once again an absolute master of cinematic tone- I’ve never seen a scene’s emotional vibe change so abruptly (and flawlessly) simply by raising or dimming the lights.
There are plenty of solid, detail-packed works on climate change and the threats from it we will face in the coming years, but this is my favorite because of how it digs deep into the darker side of activism in fighting what often appears to be a doomed battle. Confronting a reality so impossibly huge isn’t possible without, from time to time, simply being overwhelmed by it all. And as Josh Fox discovered, while this can easily lead one to moments of profound despair, it is what we do after those moments that may, in the end, make all the difference in the world.
8. Silence (Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese’s decades-long passion project is a fictional story of Christian missionaries in Japan, and the suffering and torture inflicted on them and on the handful of villages that follow them by Japanese lords determined to stamp out all foreign influence in the country. Andrew Garfield plays the lead as a particularly devout priest forced to confront the limits of his beliefs in the face of true earthly suffering. A trying, painful, and complex work that asks, but doesn’t resolve, a host of questions about colonialism, religion, and the nature of true faith, whether or not you like this will depend on how you react to the conclusion Garfield’s character reaches in the film’s final act. Some will love it, many will find it too much (or too confusing), but I felt profoundly moved, and haven’t been able to get the film out of my mind since then.
7. The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook)
I am not in the position to make a case whether or not this Korean film by Chan-wook is a proper cinematic representation of lesbians (especially since, yes, it was made by a man), but it’s filled with so much narrative detail about themes far beyond female sexuality (though that certainly is a focus) that I could spend hours unpacking it. It’s also an expertly crafted narrative about character, lies, and deception that yanks the audience around just as much as the main characters get yanked around in their tortured bids to outthink and out-smart each other. Like Journey to the Shore, it’s such an expertly crafted work in terms of seamlessly combining its technical effectiveness with a top-notch screenplay that I would feel ashamed of myself for not having it on this list.
6. The Nightmare (Achim Bornhak)
A slick thriller about the lines between fantasy and reality (and possibly a narrative metaphor for mental illness and/or eating disorders), Der Nachtmahr is a visceral trip down psychedelic lane- a teenage girl begins to see a strange, Gollum-like creature around her house, but is perplexed to find that it disappears whenever she tries to reveal it to anyone else, and soon she finds herself down a very deep rabbit hole indeed, possibly one entirely of her own making. Or maybe not.
5. Arrival (Denis Villenueve)
This was easily one of the best and most original sci-fi films to come out in years. Taking the classic First Contact scenario, it delves into the complications of language and communication as barriers for understanding (and catalysts for fatal misunderstanding) between peoples. Like the best of the sci-fi genre, the parallels and lessons for our own world and the crisis of confidence and common purpose we currently find ourselves in are impossible to miss. Mix in one of the year’s best soundtracks, viscerally gripping cinematography, and another top-of-the-line performance by Amy Adams, and it’s not hard to see why this topped so many Best Of lists.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings (Travis Knight)
As always, the latest from Laika got little love from either audiences or the awards cliques, but that in no way diminishes the quality of what is easily the studio’s best film behind ParaNorman (and it’s a close second). A film that involves both losing one’s parents and being a target of cruelty from relatives doesn’t sound like much of a pick-me-up, but Kubo takes these fairly dark ideas and, without shortchanging them or losing any sense of danger, creates an uplifting reminder of the power of art, music, and storytelling to rebuild and reshape ourselves even when faced with the greatest obstacles. And it doesn’t hurt that it further pushes the envelope of what stop-motion animation can do.
3. Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan)
No other Best Picture nominee this year hit me so deeply. Grief is hard to experience, hard to relate to, and harder still to write about and express properly in a performance, but everyone involved in this movie turns out career-best work, especially Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges. This is the first time I’ve seen Hedges in a movie since Moonrise Kingdom, and holy cow, do we need to keep an eye out for this guy. This isn’t a movie where much happens- we mostly just sit with these people as they seek to understand how their lives are being reoriented by the death of a loved one- but in a way, that’s everything there is in life.
2. Swiss Army Man (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)
This year’s Mood Indigo, Swiss Army Man is possibly the best film in Daniel Radcliffe’s career to date. Playing a possibly-supernatural living corpse that appears to rescue a stranded Paul Dano, the two of them embark on what alternates between being a survival tale, an action movie, a whacky slapstick comedy, and a psychological exploration of gender, sexuality, and the self. It is utterly absurd in its story conceit, unfathomably bizarre in its execution, and endlessly willing to haunt anyone put off by graphic talk of the many fluids and functions of the human body. And I adored every second of it.
And my #1 film of 2016 is….
1. 13th (Ava DuVernay)
13th is DuVernay’s follow-up to her last masterwork, Selma, and I could hardly imagine a more fitting topic for her to turn to incredible talents towards. Examining a tiny loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally ended legal slavery in the United States BUT allowed for exceptions for anyone “duly convicted of a crime,” she winds us through 150 years of subsequent history, breaking down how systematic disenfranchisement and oppression of African-Americans continues to shift and change shape to meet the times, making the post potent case I’ve yet encountered as to why it’s not only ignorant to insist that systematic racism no longer exists, doing so is actively destructive to those who are still caught in its maw.
All of that being said, since we are talking about my #1 film choice for 2016, I feel compelled to go a bit deeper as to why I put this ahead of other types of films that otherwise usually top these lists, including absurdist philosophical wanderings (Swiss Army Man), performance-centered character dramas (Manchester by the Sea), and gorgeously-animated fantasy (Kubo and the Two Strings). There is a moment, towards the end of the film, where DuVernay cuts to a montage playing mostly audio (and some video) clips from Donald Trump’s campaign rallies set over black-and-white footage of Civil Rights activists being attacked, arrested, beaten, and brutalized. It is the most succinct and effective summation of the entirety of the 2016 Presidential campaign, and what the rise of Trump really signifies. For this scene, the most affecting I saw in any other movie for 2016, it earns this spot as my favorite film of the year, and as the one I consider the most important and essential viewing for, and I do mean this literally, everyone.
And there we are. Another year of film, summed up. I will be back shortly with my favorite soundtracks/scores of the year, followed by that most dreadful of yearly tasks, deucing out my Oscar picks.